The State of Being Able to Learn the Nauruan Language in 2019

Happy 51st Birthday Nauru!

Today I’m going to speak about my experience with (trying to) learn Nauruan, which collapsed several times due to no fault of my own.

First off, the Nauruan language does have significant boons that some smaller languages don’t have.

There’s Nauruan Wikipedia you can visit at https://na.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bwiema_peij

There’s a predictive Nauruan-language keyboard available with SwiftKey (I can’t say how good the predictions are, but it seems to be better than the Greenlandic one).

Music is readily available on YouTube and it seems that even the most translated website in existence (I am speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Organizational Page, translated into 700+ languages) has a good deal of text and even audio. While a lot of material from JW does end up in Glosbe’s translation database, this hasn’t been the case with Nauruan as of the time of writing.

There isn’t a single book for learning the Nauruan language that is user-friendly. There is a German-Language Grammar that I wrote about earlier this month. It’s about as user-friendly as it gets: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

It is from before World War I and it seems that the orthography is quite different from what you can find on the aforementioned Nauruan Wikipedia. (Reminder to those unaware: Nauruan was once a German colony).

The advantages to this book: the grammar is clearly laid out, there are even texts for learning and a helpful dictionary. The one disadvantage is that it is probably not going to prepare you to have your first conversation. Take phrasebooks from Lonely Planet, Berlitz or Reise Know How / Kauderwelsch. Those TRAIN you to learn things that are instantly useful within a matter of minutes. This book isn’t like that.

Then we get to Stephen Trussel’s website. His work with Kiribati / Gilbertese has not only been fantastic but actually made my studies of that enchanting language POSSIBLE (I can’t thank him enough for what he has done). Concerning Nauruan, he did put a dictionary online that I in turn converted into a Memrise course (along with some other sources).

I decided to put it online and you can access it here. It probably won’t make you fluent or make you even conversational but it may be useful: https://www.memrise.com/course/1794555/nauruan/

There are some other grammars and courses that I’ve seen referenced in scholarship, but I cannot acquire copies of any of them. Part of me was hoping to get an accessible Nauruan language learning textbook when I visited the University of the South Pacific. They didn’t have anything in the way of Nauruan language materials when I went in August 2018 (as far as I could see), but they did have Cook Islands Maori / Rarotongan and Tuvaluan stuff (again, that trip made my TUVALUAN studies possible!).

Here’s what I think needs to be done in order to make the Nauruan Language accessible. I think that there are a lot of people who will appreciate being able to learn “the language of the world’s smallest independent republic”.

  • I would like to translate that Nauruan Grammar book and hopefully publish it but I don’t know how to go about doing it and / or updating the orthography.
  • A “Hacking Nauruan Course” should be made accessible. A native speaker could throw it together in an afternoon. It should have pronouns, “to have”, “to want”, conjunctions, question words, a pronunciation guide and a sentence structure guide. It could be on Memrise, Anki, or even on a free blog. A YouTube tutorial would also be fantastic.
  • Some variety of phrasebook, even a free one, should be made available. I think the Lonely Planet Fijian guide was very well put together and I think something in a similar structure would make Nauruan less intimidating. In it should be phrases related to lodging, restaurants and other everyday topics.

 

Perhaps some may think, “well, why bother with a language with so few native speakers?”

Well, I think that in the age of great language death, a lot of people are caring a lot more than they used to. And perhaps it may inspire someone to visit the country or otherwise spread knowledge about this tiny island that others in the world deserve to know about.

Naoero eko dogin! (Nauru Forever!)

naoeroekodogin

Learning Languages from Oceania: A Guide on How to Start

I would like to thank my friend Teddy Nee over at http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/ for having suggested this topic! Check out his webpage!

 

So maybe you saw that Fijian book at a store and you’re curious to learn more about the language. Maybe you found a guide to French Polynesia at your local library. Perhaps you ran into a Samoan at your friend’s party. Or you encountered Tongan women at the airport with unforgettable, colorful outfits.

Oceania is sadly a bit of a blind spot in terms of not only world politics but also the language-learning sphere in general. A lot of people don’t even give it a first glance. Perhaps it is because they think that native speakers will be hard to come by or that time would be better spent with other languages.

The fact is, any of these obstacles can be overcome and learning languages from the South Pacific (I’ll be focusing on Oceania and Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia in particular) is VERY rewarding indeed.

 

Why Learn Languages from Oceania?

 

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In Fiji there was a stark contrast to a lot of patterns I saw throughout Europe and Asia. Namely, the fact that my use of Fijian was HEAVILY encouraged on an hourly basis by native speakers. I even joked that “the janitors in Fiji were more useful and encouraging language tutors than academics in Iceland.”

(Maybe it isn’t the whole picture, but the fact is that given how quickly the world seems to be craving even MORE English, cultures throughout the world should be proud of their languages and cultures in a healthy way and be willing to encourage other people to study them as much as possible, rather than trying to force English on others as non-natives).

Palauans, Samoans and I-Kiribati were just as equally helpful for me. (Full disclosure: my Samoan is very, very weak).

In a sense, your ability to cast magic spells on people from these island nations will give you worlds upon worlds of bridges. And legendary hospitality and kindness is a cultural mainstay of many (if not all) of these countries.

On top of that, Oceania has a stronger influence on “mainstream pop culture” than meets the eye. The release of Moana / Vaiana and of Pokémon Sun and Moon (set in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region complete with Hawaiian place names and cultural references EVERYWHERE) further served to market cultures of the Pacific well outside their borders.

Even then, images of Kiribati, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and dozens of others would be recognizable to many Americans who may have not even thought too much of these places beyond “wow I’ve heard they’re beautiful islands”.

And I didn’t even touch on Maori culture still being a force of great influence well beyond Oceania.

 

Where to Start

If you want a good glimpse at a number of languages throughout Polynesia, the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook is a good introduction. Sadly it may not help you learn how to form your own sentences in every one of the languages, but it is a nice introduction to many of the locales of the South Pacific. What’s more, the sections are interspersed with local legends and cultural tips that help bring the places to life.

The book covers Fijian, Hawaiian, Kanak Languages (of New Caledonia) with a focus on Drehu,  New Zealand Maori, Niuean, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island and the island’s non-colonial name), Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan), Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan and tidbits of Fiji Hindi, French, Spanish and Norfuk / Pitkern.

Books for further reading are also located at the back of the book.

Now let’s go throughout the continent and see what we can find:

Fijian: Lonely Planet and Reise Know How both have phrasebooks of good quality, uTalk also has a course as well (very good for honing pronunciation). Not only that, but Cornell University hosts a free version of Ronald Gatty’s Fijian dictionary that covers any idiom, phrase and word that he could get his hands on. There are also good Fijian Memrise courses as well. And the Live Lingua Project has PDF’s for learners. You’re in good shape with this one.

Tongan: A fantastic Anki Deck I found from 2017 was taken off the server but I still have it and I can send it to you if you’d like it. A lot of Tongan materials are geared towards missionaries (as is the case for many languages of Oceania). Check out this PDF as well. Audio is also available on YouTube (alongside many other useful learning channels for Tongan made by enthusiastic native speakers): https://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/audio/languagelessons/tonga/TN_Tonga_Language_Lessons.pdf

Samoan: Two sources I can recommend. uTalk’s course and the Live Lingua Project. Both come with native speaker audio.

Maori: Reise Know How has a German-Language phrasebook for Maori. uTalk also has Maori as well (I think we’ve gone through all the uTalk courses for Oceania that I can think of right now, they only have Fijian, Samoan and Maori as of the time of writing). Quality materials in my experience are not scarce, thankfully.

Hawaiian: Fantastic Memrise Courses as well as Mango Languages’ Course should be a good introduction.

Cook Islands Maori: This is a hard one. So far not a lot of comprehensive user-friendly books exist, but a TON of sample sentences and words can be found at: http://cookislandsdictionary.com/ And don’t forget an introductory course at: http://cookislandslanguage.com/

Tahitian: Material from French is easy to come by, for English speakers D.T. Tryon’s book on “Conversational Tahitian” is FANTASTIC.

Marquesan Languages: You can buy a very thorough phrasebook for Marquesan from http://www.emilydonaldson.org/  (Look for the contact information and e-mail her asking about the phrasebook).

Rapa Nui: Good dictionaries can be found on the web. Concerning learning materials, omniglot.com has a good lineup (as it does for almost any language).

Niuean: http://www.learnniue.co.nz/ is a good bet, once you have the basics, see if you can find Tregear and Smith’s 1907 book with a very thorough dictionary and grammar points.

Drehu: I haven’t even studied this language on a surface level, but if you have anything to say about it…

Tok Pisin, Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin: The Lonely Planet Guide for Pidgin is EXCELLENT in getting you to start. For added supplements, consider the Live Lingua Project’s PDF’s for these languages. Memrise also has good courses for Tok Pisin and Bislama in particular. Sadly concerning Torres Strait Creole and Kriol (of the Australian Aborigines), it seems as though the landscape isn’t as favorable. Right now. But maybe new materials will come up.

Hiri Motu: Try this one: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/146613/1/PL-D24.pdf Or this one: https://exkiap.net/other/tok_pisin/Say_It_In_Motu.pdf

Palauan:  You need one website: http://tekinged.com/. This is the language website all others should aspire to be.

Marshallese: The Live Lingua Peace Corp Manual is a bit basic, but for more thorough studies look for Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese”, which will probably make you a master when you’re done with it. Provided you use audio well (and you’ll probably have to find them independently of those materials).

Nauruan: Oh my. I’m probably going to have to write about this next week. The landscape doesn’t look too clear at this point, I’ll say that. I did find a German-Language grammar book from 1913, I have a printed copy of it right here. You can get the PDF version from some universities from this link or just look at it online if you don’t have that: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

Next week is Nauru’s Independence Day and I’ll write a whole post on this topic.

Kiribati: http://trussel.com/ This website is VERY, VERY GOOD.

Tuvaluan: Geoffrey Jackson’s books are of very good quality. Sadly they exist in Google books only in pieces due to copyright restrictions. His Tuvaluan-English / English-Tuvaluan Dictionary is FANTASTIC and can be acquired from the University of the South Pacific in Suva. (Do they do mail-order stuff? I don’t even know. I got it when I went there in person). For those who like dense grammar, there is: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

Languages of the Federated States of Micronesia: A toughie. Basic Chuukese guides exist online, but for any of the others I’d recommend searching in https://www.twirpx.com/

Fiji Hindi: Live Lingua Project (look under “Fijian”).

Rotuman: http://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/LanguageLessons/lessons.htm And another site that seems to be dysfunctional at the moment. Also look for the “Rotuman Word List” in Google.

 

IF YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THIS LIST, write it in the comments belong.

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Other general tools to use include Glosbe (which has a HUGE translation memory in many of these languages) as well as SwiftKey Keyboard (which includes predictive text for SmartPhones in many of these languages as well).

 

Okay, Now I have the Materials, What Do I Do with Them?

I recommend a number of methods:

  • Writing sentences, then reading them out loud, and then recording them.
  • The 30-Day Speaking Challenge (see “Other Foreign Language Blogs” above and click on “Jonathan Huggins”) can be a good place to start.
  • Clozemaster Pro’s customization features. For this, pick a language that has the “Cloze-Collections” feature enabled. Then create a new collection, name it, and select the second option that indicates that, instead of using random words from the language, use random words from other answers (this will ensure that you don’t get one Yapese answer and three Hungarian words as the multiple-choice test selections). Insert the sentences from your book at your own volition. Now you have a custom course! If you use only sentences from the public domain, you can also SHARE it with others!
  • Social media posts. Need I say more?

And now what you’ve all be waiting for…

How to Find Native Speakers of Oceanic Languages

Paul Barbato of Geography Now said that the hardest nationalities for him to come into contact with were the Nauruans and the Tuvaluans. I don’t blame him.

There IS one way to do it and it surprisingly works but you’d have to get fairly … decent … at your target language first.

And that’s to make videos of yourself learning / using the language. With the name of the language and the title. And wait. (As of the time of writing, two Rotumans met each other in the comments section! Rotuma has a 2,000 inhabitants but significantly more outside of Rotuma, mostly in Fiji and Australia.).

You could also post it to various sub-reddits as well, but be careful. Don’t promote yourself too often otherwise you  may get locked out (this never happened to me). And contribute meaningfully to said sub-reddits as well.

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This is very much something like the post I wish I had read to “have all of my resources in one place” before choosing to study Oceanic Languages. Feel free to provide any variety of feedback or contribute any relevant projects you’re working on.

Onward!

How to Learn Greenlandic: A Resource Guide

 This is the most requested piece in the history of the blog.

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Granted, I’ve been in writing retirement for a while (because I’m focusing more on my video game right now which is my life’s first priority at the moment), but in honor of Greenland’s National Day, I’ll be keeping with tradition and letting you know exactly where to turn if you want to begin your journey into the fascinating language of Greenlander Country (Kalaallit Nunaat – which literally means “to the Greenlanders their Land).

Some of you may know that I am the proud uploader of the first Greenlandic course in the history of Memrise.com. My courses are still there and encompass two very important elements:

  • Basic phrases that are useful in tourist situations (which is ALWAYS a helpful starting point) and
  • Suffixes (complete with examples). Suffixes are ESSENTIAL in Greenlandic because twenty-letter words are the norm. There are suffixes for verbs and suffixes for nouns and also suffixes that transform one part of speech into another. Like some other languages outside the Indo-European sphere, the boundaries between parts of speech are significantly blurry in Greenlandic.

 

Takulaaruk! – have a look! -> taku- (see) –laar- (a little bit, “please”, serves to make a soft command) + uk -> it.

 

In some extreme examples, you end up with words like “Nalunaarasuartaatilioqateeraliorfinnialikkersaatiginialikkersaatilillaranatagoorunarsuarooq” (Once again, they tried to build a giant radio station, but apparently it was only on the drawing board). Dissect this word in a comment and you’ll win a prize!

 

I get messages on a weekly basis on how to learn Greenlandic, and the Memrise courses in both English and Danish are a good start. (NOTE: they are accessible from the Desktop version despite the fact that the app version only offers the choices of the official courses. Memrise, you really need to fix that…)

One book that I’ve found extremely useful is the German-Language “Grönländisch – Wort für Wort” which explains the grammar very clearly and also provides a lot of useful phrases for all tourist situations. That said, I somehow feel as though the book itself isn’t going to fully equip you to speed-read the Greenlandic Language Edition of “Sermitsiaq” (a local newspaper).

For that, allow me to introduce to you one of the most useful and thorough dictionaries I have ever encountered: http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/oqaatsit/daka

Yes, it is Danish-Greenlandic and if you don’t know Danish you’ll probably get repetitive strain injury via copy-pasting everything into Google Translate. The dictionary includes both example words and phrases that fully illustrate how you use something.

Let’s show you an example from the book:

 

elske vb. (-de, -t)

~r ham, ~r hende asavaa (fx de ~r hinanden asaqatigiipput)

~r ham højt, ~r hende højt asaaraa

han ~r at rejse angalajumatuvoq

jeg ~r kaffe (ɔ: synes det smager herligt) kaffi mamaraara

 

I’ll translate this for you:

To love

Loves him / her – asavaa (e.g. they love each other asaqatigiipput)

Loves him / her dearly – asaaraa

He loves to travel – angalajumatuvoq

I love coffee (i.e. thinks that it tastes great) kaffi mamaraara

 

One thing to understand about Greenlandic is the fact that its verb forms are difficult. There are intransitive forms (ones that you use when there is no direct object) and transitive forms (ones that you use when there is one). Granted, languages like Fijian and Hungarian also have similar systems as well, but in Greenlandic each pair of subject -> object determiners is different.

At 4:19 in this video you can see the full conjugation of intransitive verbs:

nerivunga – I eat

nerivutit – you (sing.) eat

qitippunga – I dance

qitipputit – you (sing.) dance

Etc.

 

Later on in the video comes the “atuar-“ root which means “to read” (a word that didn’t exist in Greenlandic prior to foreign contact).

 

There is one issue with a lot of learner-ese in Greenlandic, the fact that making a jump to native level material can be VERY DIFFICULT (especially if it is very poetic material like Nanook’s song lyrics).

One thing that would be helpful is to listen to the BEGINNING of words and recognize the roots of each word first of all. In Greenlandic and other polysynthetic languages, all words have a “base” on which other words are made.

Illoqarfimmut -> to the city.

Illu is the base. And it means “house”. Qar -> to have. fik -> place where there are. mut -> towards.

“Towards the place where yon be houses.”

The language works with mathematical precision precisely for this reason. Greenlandic isn’t necessarily difficult on paper it is just very hard to get used to. But that in of itself has earned it the coveted title of “hardest language I ever attempted”. (Palauan is second place).

This thread here provides a thorough list of resources: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/18623583/Resources-for-Greenlandic-Kalaallisut

Some others I would really like to mention:

Glosbe.com is also very useful by virtue of the fact that its cross translations will ease you into reading Greenlandic even if the words seem very intimidating.

What’s more, you can also begin writing your own sentences, however simple, to gain an active understanding of the language.

Lastly there is a lot of bilingual Danish / Greenlandic material present on websites such as KNR are Sermitsiaq.

You’re probably wondering if it is possible to learn Greenlandic without Danish at all. Perhaps, but do keep in mind that a small amount of loan words as well as all numbers higher than 12 are taken straight from Danish, not also to mention that it would also be useful for your Greenland journey as well (as things stand).

Lastly I’m here to help in any way I can. I may not know the language too well, and it isn’t my best one . When I was there I usually managed basic tourist functions with ease but nothing very deep. That said I can provide help or even provide more resources if necessary.

If I have my way, Greenland-o-mania may be taking over the world before we know it!

Inuiattut ulluanni pilluaritsi! (Happy Greenland Day!)

Mother of the Sea and Me

Is Learning a Language With Few Resources Frustrating?

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A lot of language learners are afraid of trying to learn a language with “few resources” (a phrase that means many things to many people).

For some, a language like Armenian would have few resources (when there are Armenian communities all over the globe and definitely a lot of a free resources and books that would get you started). Others would even define a language like SWEDISH as having few resources.

For me, the only languages I’m unable to learn are those with virtually no resources that I can access at all. But even if I don’t have these resources now, perhaps they’ll come out in a few years. In 2012/2013 I had trouble finding good places to learn Icelandic. In 2018 the number of Icelandic resources has exploded exponentially, even when you take only free resources into account.

So, if you want to learn a language and you can’t find ANY book to learn it, either ask around on the internet (like the specialized sub-Reddits for people of various nationalities) OR…wait.

But now let’s answer the question I set out to answer:

Is learning a language with only a handful of resources available frustrating for me?

Surprisingly, it isn’t. Here’s why not.

If there is ONE MISTAKE that I have seen language learners make with great consistency, it is being too attached to their language learning materials. They use only the books or the spoken materials for learners and sometimes they never, EVER venture into the world in which the language is actually used, for and by native speakers.

This is why I go to events very often and I encounter people who have been learning Spanish for YEARS and they still sound like…well, learners.

A lot of people see language learning materials as “the way” to get fluent. No. It’s only a gateway to fluency in order to ensure that you have a GROUNDING in the language so that you can fly into the world in which the language is used by native speakers without any issues.

To that end, there’s actually an ADVANTAGE in learning languages that are only served via a PDF or two on the Live Lingua Project (such as Fijian, which I’m working on right now). My path of least resistance is to grow SICK of the book, but there usually aren’t any other books to turn to (aside from the Lonely Planet phrasebooks, one for the South Pacific which serves as an introduction to many Pacific Languages and also the Kauderwelsch Fijian book for German speakers which is EXTREMELY helpful [and I don’t even own the book, I’ve just seen the preview]).

What do I do once I’m sick of the Peace Corps Fijian book and can’t stomach it anymore?

I use Fijian on radio. In songs. I read it in YouTube comments. I start using it the way a native speaker would.

But instead what usually tends to happen is that a learner hops from one series of language learning resources to another without actually engaging with the language in any way a native speaker would. Interestingly I’ve notice that people who learn English as a foreign language DON’T tend to do this.

Yes, sometimes the lack of resources can be frustrating, such as the fact that it took me a LONG time to even find out how to say “why” in Tongan. Dictionaries wouldn’t help me, the books I found didn’t offer any clue, but luckily I found an Anki deck (of ALL THINGS!) that gave me the answer.

(In case you’re curious, “why” would be “ko e hā … ai”, and you put the thing you’re asking “why” about where the “…” is. If this concept isn’t clear to you, I can illustrate it in a comment if need be. Just ask.)

Aside from things like that, with enough discipline as well as a willingness to engage the language in real life, having few resources is no issue for me.

As of the time of writing, I’ve never heard Fijian or Tongan spoken by real-life people EVER. (Well…except when I was saying phrases to other people, that is.) I have heard them both plenty of times on the Internet to ensure that, when I do meet native speakers, I know what to expect.

I went FOUR YEARS learning Greenlandic without having used it with any person face-to-face. It wasn’t until I was ready to board the airplane from Reykjavik to Nuuk that I heard it spoken in person for the first time. And all of the knowledge I had acquired in Greenlandic up until that point was just as applicable as it would have been for a language that I would have heard spoken on the street regularly for years.

It wasn’t a handicap or an issue at all.

To recap:

  • Having few resources actually ensures that you can engage with the language “in real life” earlier, because you sort of don’t have any other choice once you’re sick of the one or two books for the language you have
  • A lot of language learners get attached to their resources and hop from one learning book to another. Bad, bad idea. Instead of hopping across books, find ways to USE the language online. This could be watching videos in the language, using audio or even reading blog pieces or Facebook or YouTube comments.
  • If you want to learn a language and you can only find one book that gives you a grounding in the language as far as all parts of speech (adjectives, verbs, etc.) and equips you for a good range of situations, THAT IS ENOUGH. You may not need any other book.

Lastly, a recap of my own progress with the projects for this month:

  • Greenlandic: gaining more and more vocabulary via the 30-Day Speaking challenge! I’m not making turbo progress but it occurs to me how much my latent knowledge has expanded after a break!
  • Fijian: You’d be surprised how much you can learn with 30 minutes of exposure to a language every day. Right now I’m primarily using the book in order to ensure that I can understand how the language words. Fijian seems to be moderate difficulty, almost in the dead center of the curve as far as my previous languages go (with Greenlandic, Irish and Burmese being on the very hard side and on the very easy side…English Creoles).
  • I haven’t started with Bahamian Creole yet. Again, since many people would consider this a dialect of English rather than a separate language (more often than for Trinidadian or Vincentian English Creoles), it doesn’t really “break my promise” to do no new languages in 2018. This is more of a fun project I’m doing for exploration’s sake, Fijian is my highest priority right now.

 

I hope all your dreams come true!

All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

20170515_151501

Speaking Greenlandic as a Foreign Language in Greenland: What Was It Like?

Scene: Reykjavik.

It was more than four years since I first discovered the Greenlandic language at a library in rural Connecticut in April 2013.

October 18, 2017 marked the first time that I heard Greenlandic spoken in person. Oddly, it was actually not the first time using Greenlandic with a real person (that was December 5th, 2016, the day before my interview with KNR [the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation] but it was a mix of Greenlandic and English and it was on the phone. I used English in that interview, with an interpreter with KNR who did an EXCELLENT job, but I also made sure to use some Greenlandic in the interview as well.)

We boarded the plane that was headed to Nuuk and I was excited but also weighed down by travel and, yes, the nagging thought that I was gonna SCREW EVERYTHING UP (I did end up accidentally responding to a Danish-speaking captain in English at one point, but with each year I realize how I shouldn’t take minor-slip ups personally. Looking back at the whole trip, my usage of Greenlandic and Danish was a huge success, despite the fact that I wasn’t fluent in Greenlandic at the time).

Here are some stories to illustrate what sort of reception I got:

  • The Captain asked in English what sort of nationalities were represented on the plane. I said, in Greenlandic, “Hello everyone, I’m American” and I got treated to a planeful of “wow” ‘s and even some applause. Whether that was the fact that Americans are a rarity in Greenland or because I was using Greenlandic as a foreigner is anyone’s guess.

 

  • I stayed with a host family in Nuuk. The mom knew I was coming from the USA so she addressed me in English and in the middle of the journey I suddenly switched to Danish without warning and then Greenlandic (she was very impressed with both, so I recall). She told me that I spoke Greenlandic better than almost all of the foreigners that live there (!!!) I asked her what language I should use to order things in. I was told to use Danish or English most of the time while in Nuuk, Greenlandic in smaller settlements.

 

  • In moving in, there was the daughter present and when I began using some Greenlandic I got a dumbfounded blank stare as though I had revealed myself to be a divine being. She pretty much asked me why on earth I would do it. I explained that I liked Greenlandic music and then showed my Reise Know How book that had helped me throughout my Greenlandic Language journey.

 

  • Sometimes I messed up with Greenlandic with my host family, in which case people would usually switch to Danish with me. People also wanted to use some English with me sometimes. Which was okay. I’ve learned to not take it personally as long as I’m not the one that uses English to the detriment of showing respect to the culture or “expecting people to know my language”.

 

  • When I met some of my celebrity idols at Katuaq, I used Danish and English and I made an effort to use some Greenlandic but for some reason it wasn’t ideal at the time. I had the opportunity to meet the well-known Greenlandic actor Qillannguaq Berthelsen and he told me that I pronounced his name very well. I was so curious to hear what name he goes by with people who can’t pronounce “Qillannguaq” and he told me he goes by “Q” with such people. When I met Marc’s family I was capable of understanding a lot of what was said between them but I made sure that I got the chance to use some Greenlandic with him and his family while he and his friends got the chance to use some English with me. However, I did have some significant troubles understanding Greenlandic without the subtitles when I saw the movie. I really liked the movie, it was one of the funniest I have EVER seen and fantastically put together, by the way.

 

  • In meeting Nanook (one of Greenland’s best-known musical acts), Frederik (one of the lead singers) told me that I spoke Greenlandic well, Christian (the other lead singer of Nanook) said that he was “amazed” with my linguistic abilities (do you understand what it is to me to meet one of my your favorite musicians and the first words he says to you is “I remember you!” Oh, I didn’t mention that I had chat exchanges with both of them prior to visiting the Atlantic Music Shop in Greenland. I got Nanook albums and gear and wore a Nanook T-Shirt during my Polyglot Conference Presentation, exactly as I told Nanook that I would). With the two of them I remember going back between Greenlandic, Danish and English. Everyone’s happy that way. J

 

  • For buying museum tickets I used exclusively Danish although just in case I made sure to use some Greenlandic if I heard a staff member using it.

 

  • For asking directions I used Greenlandic and I only got one response in English (very heavily accented English from a new couple that had just moved to Nuuk). I got lost in Nuuk during my first hour (I went to Nuuk Center to get food and I couldn’t find my way back to my host family. It was then that I saw the Northern Lights for the first time. )

 

  • The bar. Oh wow. I got SO many positive responses that it was unbelievable. People telling me that my accent was amazing and that I was super-talented and that they had “heard about the guy who learned Greenlandic in a week” (that wasn’t Daniel Tammet, who I met a matter of days afterwards in Reykjavik, but Paul Barbato, who went on to become the host of the super-successful “Geography Now” YouTube channel. His Greenlandic video, how I ended up discovering him, was openly teleprompted with audio provided from a native speaker, if I recall correctly. Nothing wrong with that!). It was in pubs like these that I had a lot of opportunity to practice and I got nothing short of a red-carpet treatment. Imagine speaking your target language and getting, in response, a very enthusiastic “QAA! QAA! QAA!!!!!” (WOW! WOW! WOW!!!!!) I’ll never forget those sort of reactions. Ever.

 

  • With taxi drivers I used some Greenlandic as well, and part of me remembers getting discounted on account of it. Not also to mention my language skills getting me free rides and other fun stuff. One taxi driver was perplexed why this American kid recognized almost every Greenlandic song that came on the radio. I can’t even do that in the UNITED STATES!

 

 

 

Granted, my nervousness sometimes held me back and it wasn’t absolutely perfect all of the time. But I did make gains and hopefully I’ll learn to teach myself how to not hold back and not have self-doubt in the future. That’s what 2018 is for, right? And 2019. And 2020. And the rest of my life. And your life for yourself!

What were YOUR immersion experiences like, especially with languages that most people don’t study? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. I also completed the “30 Days of Greenlandic” challenge earlier today (I rushed it because of a surprise video I’m making!). I’ll post the compilation of recordings as my last video in 2017!

20171023_135507

Why Lao is Easy

It seems that it wasn’t long ago I heard someone in my general studies class at my Jewish “middle school” pronounced “Vientiane” as “vee-ent-tee-ane” (it’s pronounced “vee-en-chan”).

Many years later, I fell in love with the Lao language after having encountered it in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook (which I primarily purchased for Burmese but in 2014 [YEARS before I even deemed it a possibility that I would set foot there] there wasn’t a standalone Burmese language guide that could fit in my pocket).

November led me to great strides in Lao, and today is December 2nd, which is Laos’ National Day (an anniversary of a communist takeover, no less). Given my tradition of writing pieces on national holidays (despite the fact that I sometimes have forgotten a few), it seemed appropriate for me to just take this opportunity to write this piece.

Take a look at the intro for a German-Language Lao Book:

lao easy yaa

“Laotisch – Wort für Wort”

Translation: “Barely anyone believes it at first: Lao is easy to Learn! The new letters seem too hard, the six tones seem barely learnable and the completely different-sounding vocabulary inscrutable. After many years’ time as a resident in Laos, I would, on the contrary, offer this to those interested and wanting to learn it: Lao is, for German-speakers, really quite easily learnable! It’s worth it!”

 

My 30-Day Journey in the Lao Language aligned PERFECTLY with this understanding, despite the fact that I’m not fluent in Lao (yet) and have significant gaps in my vocabulary.

But as far as grammar is concerned, Lao is very simple.

I remember one time that I was leaning on a bar during Language Exchange NYC. A middle-aged woman had told of her troubles with Spanish verb conjugation and asked me what language I was focusing on. I told her about Lao, and she proceeded to tell me exactly “how hard” it would be to learn an Asian language.

I told her that I could literally summarize Lao verbs in ten seconds. So I said this:

 

“Verbs never change.

To indicate past tense, put “ແລວ” (lὲεw) after the verb.

To indicate future tense, but “ຊິ” (sī) or “ຈະ” (já) before the verb.

DONE”

 

No need to plaster your apartment with conjugation tables (as I’ve seen many students of languages like Spanish, French and German do during my college years).

 

Lao has no grammatical gender either, and a lot of the gendered language that Thai (its sister language) has (namely, that men and women will say hello differently) was done away with (yada yada yada, communism). While languages like Thai and Khmer have “pronoun zoos”, Lao’s pronoun system is significantly simplified, making it similar to that of English.

There ARE some honorifics left, but the royal language that still exists in Thai was made illegal by the communist regime.

Some languages like Yiddish have a wealth of possible plural forms (I mentioned Yiddish because it has the most possible, I think, of any language I know of, given that they draw from Germanic, Slavic AND Hebrew sources). Lao doesn’t change any of its nouns, instead using classifier words.

In English, you can say “two coffees” but it would be more proper to say “two cups of coffee”. The “cups” is a classifier words that you use in order to indicate things that come in small drinkable containers. It also has another meaning (classifier words are wont to have other meanings).

 

Much like languages like Spanish, there are two verbs meaning “to be” in Lao, but they are divided along different lines.

One of them is used primarily for objects “ແມ່ນ” (mε̄εn) and another is used primarily for people “ເປັນ” (bpen). Oh, and between nouns and adjectives, you can just leave out a verb altogether! (This would be like saying “it very good”.

 

There were also pieces that reminded me of other languages that I had studied. Much like Bislama, Lao uses the word “to say” in order to mark an indirect statement (like the “that” in “I know that Lao is beautiful”.) Much like languages with strong influence from holy religious languages (Yiddish, Tajik and Burmese also qualify with influence from Hebrew, Arabic and Pali respectively), Lao also has loanwords from … Pali, a holy language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali words are also used in Burmese, Thai and Khmer (despite the fact that these three are spread across THREE different language families).

Because Pali is Indo-European, that meant that I noticed some similarities and cognates to words from the Indo-European family tree (spanning from India to Iceland), not to mention more direct cognates to Burmese (via Pali) which I had previously studied (and am focusing on right now!)

 

Articles in Lao are…compeltely non-existent, as is the case with many languages throughout the world. I’ve also noticed that Lao news broadcasts are significantly spoken more slowly than those in many other Asian languages. I could more readily recognize English loan-words and place names (despite the fact that loan words from European languages are significatly rare except for place names).

 

Above all, the Lao language is fascinating and already I’m starting to use it on YouTube in order to enjoy a wealth of independent films (and I can’t wait for the day in which I’ll be using it to read literature in depth!).

Lao films tend to be interesting because I’ve seen a significant amount of them that work the Hollywood formula in reverse: everything is going fine, and then everything falls apart IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE (that doesn’t involve monsters or special effects). Again, I have a lot more of the Lao independent cinema to explore, so there’s that.

To many more years with you!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow