The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

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Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

Important Lessons I Learned from a 3-week Journey through Sierra Leone Krio

Three weeks ago I set out on a journey to learn a language that was important for my family history: Krio, the English Creole of Sierra Leone. For those unaware, my parents worked there before I was born, and I often heard stories about “Salone” (pronounced “saal-loan”, two syllables) throughout my life.

Often my parents were fairly reluctant to open up about the full extent of what they experienced in Sierra Leone (they left shortly before the Civil War made famous by Blood Diamond, which my parents as well as many people from Salone were vexed by concerning the fairy tale / white savior elements, but on some level reluctantly satisfied that it did bring awareness about the Civil War to places like Hollywood).

I should start out by saying that I actually had two missions, one to improve Greenlandic (which was sadly not a success!) and another to learn Krio to whatever degree I could, giving myself 30 minutes a day.

If I didn’t allot myself to the 30 minutes a day, I actually said I would permanently delete this blog. So that really kept me to the commitment!

However, for Greenlandic (in which I was in no such “rush”, although I may be closer to the release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”), I made no such deal. Then I got handed a translation job last week that sucked out almost all of my time for a week and threw my study schedule for Greenlandic out the window completely.

However I cut it, my Greenlandic mission crashed.

But my Krio mission, perhaps because of my commitment, was a success! I had promised myself ever since 2014 that I would become conversational in it, and while I have a long way to go (I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet…), I would call myself proficient in spoken Krio!

Welcome to the club, Krio! You’re my first African language. Glad to have you with us on the show today. And on all other days.

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The lessons I picked up from having my Greenlandic goals thrown to the wayside are straightforward: I had a routine, but I burned out easily. Perhaps I should have been more fluid rather than with the rigid goals that I set (in which I would read a certain amount of something every single day, and then that lasted a week and a half and then I “wasn’t feeling up to it”).

That said, I think I discovered that my big weakness with written Greenlandic lies in the suffixes. More on the fascinating Greenlandic Language here (and I’ll likely write another piece about it on June 21st, the National Day of Greenland, and yes, it was picked because it is the longest day of the year!)

So, lessons I picked up during the Krio Journey:

  • Have a Fluid Routine, Especially if You are Otherwise Busy or Consider Yourself “Lazy”

I should have done this with Greenlandic. I should have said, “30 minutes of engaging with Greenlandic with new material, however you please, every day, no exceptions”.

The fact that I did that with Krio meant that I was capable of adjusting my routine towards whatever I wanted to do that day. Needed music? I could do that. Needed a grammar review? Yup. Wanted to read? All right then.

Surprisingly, this actually made my routine fairly well-balanced and it worked in raising not only the various levels of my understanding and speaking (I didn’t do much writing with Krio because of the inconsistency across writing systems I encountered), but also prevented me from burning out!

Even having the heaviest translation job of my life didn’t throw me off my routine!

 

  • Use YouTube Personalities as Your Virtual Friends and Mentors

 

Chances are, if anything on YouTube is in Krio (although I didn’t do a lot of documentary watching), I watched it. In some cases, I watched some videos as many as ten times on different days!

This actually bonded me to the creators and I saw fit to imitate them, their accents and the Salone personalities (because if you don’t have a connection to an associated culture of the language you will NEVER be fluent! At least this is my opinion).

A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but you actually come to imitate the various people in the media you consume. Yes, even in works of fiction! Given the unbelievably high standards I have set for myself, I have to choose my media very carefully, because often, especially in the smartphone world, you may end up spending more time with them than your real-life friends!

The great news for you as a language learner is that you can self-select virtual peers using TV Shows / YouTube Channels / other video content featuring characters and/or creators that speak your target language.

The same way that your peers will influence you professionally and in terms of their hobbies, your virtual peers will do the same. In this case, I got myself a Krio-speaking friend group in two-dimensions and it was fantastic! (Not also to mention other learners of Krio online through various platforms! Salone enthusiasts of the world unite!)

 

  • If you’ve studied a lot of varying languages, you’ll notice similarities peek in, and in the weirdest places.

Krio uses the word “we” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. That means, “Who, that, which”, as in “the person who (whom?) you are trying to reach is not available. Please call again later”.

Oh gee, I wonder what other languages I’ve studied that use an all-purpose relative pronoun?

Swedish (along with its Scandinavian siblings) uses the word “som” in the EXACT SAME MANNER that “we” is used in Krio, although “som” has usages that “we” in Krio does not have. I’d write more but I think that in 2017 people get bored really easily so if you’re really curious, write about it in the comment and I’ll explain it in more detail…

Bislama (the Ni-Vanuatu Pidgin English with French and local loanwords) in particular had uncanny similarities to Krio. “Nomo”, meaning “only” or “just” in Krio, is used in the same way that Bislama uses “nomoa” (and yes, Solomon Islands Pijin does the exact same thing). Bislama also used the word “se” to indicate an indirect statement, which means the “that” in “I think that you are going to want to learn Krio after reading this blog post”. Yes, both are related to the English word “say”.

Krio also did away with most of the accusative and possessive cases’ remnants in English. Imagine “us” and “our” being replaced with “we” (or “wi” in the case of Krio) and you’ll get an idea of something you may need to get used to with Krio. Tajik also uses nominative pronouns to indicate ownership similarly, although the execution is different.

“I heard once you pick up about four languages, the rest become easy”. Yes, but as long as you’re not staying limited to one family.

If you pick up French, Spanish and Italian one after the other, you’re going to likely struggle if you want to learn any East Asian language.

But given that the first languages I studied were French, Biblical Hebrew, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Talmudic Aramaic and Russian, there’s obviously more variety in that (and I studied all before I reached the age of 16).

Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish, the first languages I reached true fluency in, were handed the keys based on my prior knowledge of a wide birth of languages (none of which I was conversationally fluent in five years ago), something that only just continues to endow me with an endless array of unfair advantages that it genuinely scares me!

 

  • Studying a Developing-World Language is going to be Different from Studying a Developed-World Language

 

Developing-world languages tend to be different from developed-world languages in the following way:

 

  • Significantly less internet content

 

  • Significantly fewer localization options

 

  • More focus on spoken forms rather than written forms (for comparison’s sake: when I was learning Solomon Islands Pijin and my first step was the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I distinctly remember the phrase, “Relax, business letters are written in English!” [shortly afterwards they explained how to write a letter to your friend in Pijin].

 

  • Prospective language learners, especially from the west, often toss them aside as “insignificant” and prefer their colonial languages (such as English, French or Portuguese). Yes, you could get by with Standard English in Sierra Leone or the Solomon Islands. But you won’t understand the culture beyond a surface level without knowing the true language that unites these countries (I cringe already when I think of people telling me “I will never learn a creole language. Ever”. I could write a whole article about it and I probably will one day). Fun fact: China is actually going to be investing in teaching native African languages so as to build trust with the developing world. The U.S. needs to step up its game in this regard. The Peace Corps books are great, but they’re not enough by themselves.

 

  • Like many endangered languages, a lot of developing-world languages reflect the advanced vocabulary of their former colonizers and code-switching is common (yes, Irish-speakers from the Gaeltachtaí will use English in a shockingly similar back-and-forth manner when speaking Irish sometimes, not unlike what I’ve heard Krio speakers using between Krio and English!)

 

Learning Creole Languages, and Krio in particular, made me more aware of the true face of colonialism and empire as well as made me a better human being. I feel that knowing Krio language and culture, even in the short journey I’ve had thus far, taught me more about Sierra Leone and West Africa in general than any amount of photos or stories from my family members ever could (although no doubt I am grateful for them). I also had no clue that the Afro-Carribean Cultures and Salone Krio cultures were actually siblings, not also to mention the many different types of African-American cultures that exist throughout the US.

Now I know where to go from here: not only continuing my journey with exposure through Krio-language content throughout my life, but share with other people how I came to discover a land of fascinating, brave and articulate people without even having set foot on it!

Here’s an idea: look at a map of the world and think about where you would like to go and what cultures you’d like to experience. Pick a language you’d like to learn based on your thoughts, which I hope are running wildly and colorfully. You won’t regret it!

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