The Tuvaluan Language: A Beginner’s Perspective

What started as a genuinely-hearted journey to find more about “sinking islands” turned into an entirely new passion. While I am still a beginner in Tuvaluan and have been for the past month, I have been capable of communicating with simple sentences and even quite able to understand a handful of songs!

In honor of Tuvaluan Independence Day, I thought I should answer a few questions:

  • Why Tuvaluan?
  • What should I get to learn it?

First off, a bit about my background. Earlier this year I had a Benny-Lewis style Fijian mission on location in Fiji (which I deemed a modest success). Prior to that my only deep interests in Oceania were with the creoles of Melanesia in addition to some knowledge of Kiribati and Palauan.

You’ve probably noticed that within these is a lot of representation of the Pacific but no Polynesian Languages (except for Tuvaluan) listed thus far (okay, I had a phase with Tongan about a year ago but didn’t get too far with it).

Truth be told, the languages of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia are, together with languages like Malay, Indonesian, various languages of the Philippines and even Malagasy, classed under the “Austronesian Language Family”, or the languages of the isles of the south. Much like the Indo-European Languages can be classed into several families (e.g. Germanic, Celtic, Slavic), so too can the Austronesian Languages. As with human family members, language family members share characteristics amongst themselves and are also affected by “friendships” with other members outside the group. (An example would include Bantu and French loan words in Malagasy as well as English loan words in languages like Fijian or Kiribati).

Now what does this have to do with Tuvalu?

The language has acted a bit like a sponge, in a sense, being influenced by other languages both close to it (such as Samoan due to influence from Christian preachers from Samoan), Kiribati (due to cultural exchange between Tuvaluans and the Gilbertese-speakers) and English (due to being a former British colony. And Tuvalu has a central location:

tuvalu yay

What this has to do with language learning is the fact that Tuvaluan meshes a lot of characteristics in it that make it a befitting “gateway” to any of the other Polynesian Languages. (My understanding is that it would be similar to, let’s say, Slovak among the Slavic Languages—that due to its central location, it is the Slavic Language that represents most of the qualities of the family as a whole).

Tuvalu is a small country of around 11,000 inhabitants and the third smallest by population. You’re probably curious as to why such an investment would be a wise idea to begin with.

The fact is, due to a lot of music production and expatriate communities in New Zealand and elsewhere, not also to mention their “global” outlook within the Pacific, Tuvaluan music and culture has extended well beyond its borders, although on a small scale.

Or IS it so small? I once told a friend of mine (and Facebook) that my knowledge of Tuvaluan had caused me to “understand things like Pokémon Games and Disney Movies on a deeper level”

And the thing is, I wasn’t joking. Pokémon Sun and Moon takes place in Alola (a Hawaii-inspired region) and featured snippets of Hawaiian place names that I could understand via Tuvaluan cognates. Moana also featured Tokelauan songs—which is very close to Tuvaluan.

True to any small language that I’ve learned so far, the Tuvaluan community does offer “insider privileges” and respect to those who learn the language to any degree. In fact, the word for foreigners in Tuvaluan is “fakaalofa” which actually refers to “people who need love” (also a greeting in Niuean, but I digress).

Also a lot of the materials are very clearly written, although rare. For one, this grammar page is extremely thorough: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

In addition to that, Geoffrey and Jenny Jackson’s Tuvaluan Dictionary is available at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. It also features a lot of sample sentences that are actually more useful than meets the eye. The dictionary is extremely good, and if it has one flaw, it is the fact that profanity isn’t covered (it is written by missionaries, so fair enough). But even “You Swear Dot Com” doesn’t even feature Tuvaluan profanity so as of now a definitive guide doesn’t exist anywhere (as far as I know).  I have heard that the Jacksons also wrote a textbook but it wasn’t stocked at the USP bookstore (there are excerpts on it on Google Books and it is VERY good…what I can see of it, that is.)

Glosbe also features cross-translated sentences in Tuvaluan from its translation memory—these are godsends from anyone learning rare languages anywhere.

Lastly, check out and subscribe to the MusicTuvalu channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOvs1-AGk-idOZhScjEu3qQ As well as the Memrise Courses that are incomplete but very well done regardless.

Speaking of which, I’m going to record myself speaking some Tuvaluan right now!

The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!