What Made Learning Languages of Oceania Different from Learning Other Languages?

Thanks again to Teddy Nee for this idea! Check out his musings at: http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/

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The number of people I have met who have studied foreign languages from Oceania I number no more than twenty, MAYBE thirty at the absolute highest. And I meet dozens of language learners every week if not a couple hundred every month (!)

Even if you don’t intend on learning any (and that’s okay, obviously!), perhaps you are a bit curious about how the process is different from learning other languages.

I’ll lay out a number of differences between, let’s say, me having learned Fijian last year and my learning Slovak right now.

 

  • It is nigh impossible to avoid material from Christian missionaries in native-speaker immersion.

 

And given that SBS Radio Australia just discontinued its Fijian radio program (among other indigenous languages of Oceania) a year or two ago, budget cuts may make this even more of a reality than it already is.

 

Jewish as I am, I really have to admire the efforts of missionaries in how much effort they go in localizing their materials. I’ve said it many times on this blog, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses alone outdid all of WIKIPEDIA not only in terms of how many languages were represented but also the qualities of their translations as well. Wikipedia has no more than 300 languages or so, jw.org has over 700.

 

My studies of Tuvaluan and of Tongan would have been IMPOSSIBLE if not for the efforts of contemporary missionaries. Granted, I choose to learn languages from Oceania out of environmental and cultural exploratory reasons, not because I have any intention of converting to Christianity.

 

Here’s how I recommend you use the material:

 

Glosbe has translation memories (for those who don’t know what this is, this is when cross-translated texts are put into a database for other translators to reference). You’ll find cross-translated sentences (e.g. English to Fijian).

 

Get a Clozemaster Pro account, pick a language that has the Cloze-Collections feature, and add sentences (make sure to check the second check box so that the other answers you get are ALSO in your target language). Keep adding sentences and playing through them. The Cloze-Collections features is being beta-tested so there have been some issues with it (e.g. you’ll still get 100% mastered sentences showing up).

Also feel free to use sentences from language learning textbooks as well.

Lastly, use spoken and musical audio in order to hone aspects of your accent. Again, a lot of the material available, if it isn’t news broadcasts from Australia, New Zealand or even the countries themselves, will probably be audio Bibles or other materials aimed at Christians.

 

  • Lots of self-practice is needed if you don’t have access to native speakers.

 

You NEED to be recording yourself. If you’re brave enough, share the recordings on the Internet. If you’re braver still, try sharing it in forums or on Reddit.

 

The 30-Day Speaking Challenge is a FANTASTIC place to start, even if you have to even read from a script at the start and then transfer to improvisation (with or without vocabulary lists). More info here: http://hugginsinternational.com/

 

With this you need to actively imitate native speakers more attentively. Describe the texture of your target language to yourself. What are you noticing about the consonants and vowel sounds?

 

With some accents (although I have heard it used in particular about French and Slavic languages), feel free to imitate them over the top and then tone it down accordingly. The Fijian language’s consonants are very juicy. Languages of Micronesia have a guttural quality that will make foreigners’ eyes bulge the first time they hear it (I’m still amused by the missionary that once referred to Marshallese as “sounding like baby talk”).

 

I can go on the street in New York City and hear Dominican Spanish and Jamaican Patois. I can also hear many languages of China and India as well, not also to mention Hebrew, French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Yiddish. Unless you live in some metropolitan areas of Australia or New Zealand (which have large communities from all over the continent) or areas in Arkansas where Marshallese is commonly heard on the street, you probably don’t have that luxury. So make up for it with more voice training.

 

  • People of Oceania are fiercely proud of their languages in ways that many Westerners aren’t. Many of them will also jump on any opportunity to help you.

 

I’ve heard some people who are citizens of EU countries subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) wish that they had another native language.

 

There was NOT A HINT of this when I was in Fiji, not among the iTaukei, not among the Indo-Fijians, and not among the members of other nationalities I encountered in Suva or Los Angeles or online.

 

When I started posting videos of me trying to learn Gilbertese online, within less than a month I found I-Kiribati online willing to help me(and if it weren’t for my stress levels I’d take them up on it).

 

Palauans. Samoans. Fijians. Hawaiians. Many of these nationalities (and more) will gladly use your interest in their language to cement friendships with you.

 

With speakers of English Creoles, there may be “situation-appropriateness” to be accounted for (e.g. some Solomon Islanders may not consider Pijin suitable for some written needs, such as in business letters or exchanges). Aside from that, you’re in for a world of love.

 

  • Music is readily available in any national language of Oceania.

 

And entire YouTube channels are devoted to it.

 

KiriMusik:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCG4tYNU1mJ1U5D4qTqrc39w

MusicTuvalu:

https://www.youtube.com/user/MusicTuvalu

MusicofSamoa (WITH KARAOKE TRACKS):

https://www.youtube.com/user/musicofsamoa

 

You get the idea.

 

Use it.

 

  • Films may NOT be readily available in many of these languages.

 

Unless, of course, you account for the Jesus Film.

 

Kiribati and Samoa have a good deal of online movies available for free on YouTube. The Melanesian English Creoles also have some. But many of the others may be lacking.

 

  • Sometimes you’ll only have access to one book to learn the language. But if you have material for native speakers, one book is enough.

Check this post: https://worldwithlittleworlds.com/2019/01/24/learning-languages-from-oceania-a-guide-on-how-to-start/

 

  • You’ll get a lot of discouragement from some people (who know NOTHING about Oceania) that claim that learning such languages is “useless” or can’t even locate the countries on a map.

I tell them exactly how, while these countries may be small, knowing the language can give you instant insider privileges and friendships, precisely because so few people take that path.

If you show up to a Kiribati village with knowledge of Gilbertese, they’ll ask you to make a speech at the Maneaba (something akin to a town hall or a meeting place).

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People will be curious to hear your story and wonder how someone could POSSIBLY be so smart so as to be able to learn the language as well as you do (even if you’re not that good).

I’m certain that if the people discouraging you were to just taste a LITTLE bit of the “red carpet treatment” I got in Fiji as a result of me using the local language, they would reconsider.

 

  • Learning Languages of Oceania can be heartbreaking

Some nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu most famously, have made rising sea levels one of the cornerstones of their national identity. And they have every right to.

I remember one time I heard a story about someone who showed up to a Yiddish class the first day in a university setting. S/he was sobbing so much thinking about all of the culture that was lost to the Shoah and how we will never know anything about the millions of people murdered just because they were Jewish, 80% of whom were native Yiddish speakers.

I’ve had to deal with that pain myself in learning and teaching Yiddish. Looking into a vanished world, but still admiring what remains of it, whether it be in the heartlands of Yiddish culture themselves or with Yiddishists all over the world.

With each word of Kiribati, Tuvaluan or Marshallese that I pick up, I am cognizant of the fact that I may actually outlive the very earth on which these cultures were formed and created for over a millennium. Unless we care a whole awful lot and manage to turn things around and defeat greed, that is.

Having to deal with that, I understand another level why many people not only don’t learn languages of these places but don’t learn about them almost at all to begin with. That reality is terrifying. The “words of the last generation” contain a pain that is unprecedented in human history – literally watching your country vanish.

But it is precisely because I want to heal that pain that I devote myself to this area of the world. And I hope I may inspire you to do so as well.

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My Dictionary / Translation Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!

Inspired by my previous article in which I detailed the various strengths and weaknesses of my language learning apps, here I am in another direction—looking at my dictionary and translation apps.

And again, you can probably guess which one leads the list. Not in terms of quality, per se, but in terms of recognition…

Google Translate

Good: Excellent for phrases, alternate translations readily provided, text-to-speech very good when it is provided, enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues, some offline support available

Bad: Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin, transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing, not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power, the general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers), usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner.

I’ll go into each of these:

Excellent for phrases – This is the biggest drawcard of Google Translate. Simple things you may need in conversation (e.g. “I don’t feel well”, “you are beautiful”, “have fun!”) will be accurately provided and noted with a check-mark, indicating that the translation community of native speakers have found the phrase overwhelmingly accurate. (This can still have some issues e.g. with the Burmese gender-specific versions of “I” both being marked with a check, but if I refer to myself with a female pronoun then I would turn heads).

Alternate translations readily provided – Define a single word and you’ll get synonyms and related words. If you write a conjugated verb (e.g. “eaten”) you’ll get the infinitive form underneath (“to eat”). Helpful if you’re trying to wrap your head around complicated verb systems (such as in the Romance Languages or Finno-Ugric Languages).

Text-to-speech very good when it is provided – I also see no issues with the tones either (in Thai or Vietnamese, for example).

Enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues – I’ve gone ape on some of the Yiddish “translations” available and provided correct versions. You can do the same with your fluent languages as well.

Some offline support available – SUPER helpful if you’re doing “immersion” out of your home country and you don’t have coverage. The sad reality is that it doesn’t exist for every language available in Google Translate.

Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin – Burmese song lyrics look like word salad when machine translated into English. Languages like Samoan, Irish and Yiddish tend to not fare much better.

Transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing – So in Lao some of the vowels go before the letter and others go on top or after it. Google Translate has difficulty rendering this into transliteration so what it does it render ແຂວງ (the Lao word for “Province”, pronounced “khwε̌εŋ”) as “aekhuang” in transliteration. Urdu and Persian don’t even have transliteration as of the time of writing.

Not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power

machine translation says no

The general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers) – No further explanation needed.

Usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner – And I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

 

Glosbe

Good: Aims to be THE LARGEST collection of language combinations anywhere, HUGE translation memory, translation memory hugely reliable, indispensable for learning languages from the developing world.

Bad: Long list of languages that requires you to ctrl-f frequently, no telling which languages have good representation in the translation memory or not except by trial and error, sometimes the quotation mark function can be wonky and give you all forms of the words in quotes rather than the specific phrase you’re asking for.

A godsend for my studies of languages of Oceania, Glosbe is something I highly recommend to anyone whether you’re learning Spanish or whether you’re learning Marquesan. The translation memory, which includes collections of subtitles, phrase databases and missionary materials is VERY well put together with over 1 BILLION entries in it across hundreds of languages.

If you’re learning a language from the developed world, like Italian, Finnish or Bulgarian, you’ll find the collections from OpenSubtitles very useful as they are built into the translation memories. However, if you’re learning a rarer language with a developing country, don’t lose hope! A lot of materials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church have also been rendered into many of those languages as well. And even in English Creole languages like Tok Pisin, they’ll try to stay away from English loan words as much as humanly possible in their translations.

I haven’t noticed any significant issues with the translations themselves (although one time a Samoan sentence showed up in the Marshallese database!). You can also find very specific phrases as well and genuinely learn sentence structure. Even if you’re stuck with only using missionary material, you WILL find sentences that will be genuinely useful for conversations.

This is probably one of the most powerful language tools in existence right now and you NEED to be using this.

Freelang

Good: HUGE collection of languages, user-friendly, not a lot of typing required, a built-in quiz game, some of the dictionaries are VERY thorough (e.g. the Finnish-English one has scientific vocabulary), all dictionaries are reversible, dictionaries from English, Spanish and French all in huge quantities (some of them are unique to one particular language, e.g. Galician-Spanish), all dictionaries can be downloaded for offline usage, you can also print dictionaries from the computer (or use the print preview function to get them in another format).

Bad: Quiz game can be confusing, not a lot of grammar, some of the dictionaries are small but good nonetheless, some special characters get jarbled, transliterations can sometimes be an issue

Freelang dictionaries are VERY useful for advanced beginners to…well, advanced speakers, even. But it does depend on the language. Because your language can have anywhere from 400 entries to 40,000…but the entries are usually helpful regardless of how small the dictionary is!

Also the collection of languages is STAGGERING. And no problem with offline usage at all (provided you install the dictionaries you want while you’re online).

There is also an in-built quiz machine you can use. You can choose words from the dictionary to go on your study list. In older versions in the early 2010’s I could figure this feature out but not so much anymore. Maybe someone from Freelang is reading this. J

Overall a very good tool that has been, again, indispensable for my studies.

Anki

Not really a good bad anything: You can use it as a dictionary if you put enough flashcards in it. You can also convert Memrise courses to Anki as well and use THEM as dictionaries.

I can’t find of a decent way to end this article. Let me know what dictionary apps YOU find useful.

Final-Third-of-2018 Reflections: Where am I Going? Where Do I Want to Go?

Yom Kippur has passed and I find myself writing blog posts even more infrequently. That said, I think that I’ve come on some thoughts that need sharing.

For one, while my 30-minutes-of-Hungarian a day have been going by very, very well (I’ve been doing this since May of this year and also during January of this year as well), it occurs to me that I need something more AND that I need start using material intended for native speakers ENTIRELY.

The biggest trap that I’m falling into right now is that I sometimes expect myself to learn a lot of the words from context, and that my study routine right doesn’t really involve a lot of active learning (e.g. writing sentences).

I am almost happy with my level and I’ll see how well I can manage a conversation on Tuesday at Mundo Lingo. I remember with some languages I would readily have my progress tripped up with realizing exactly how many vocabulary gaps I had, and that I would have to go home and review them (this happened with Spanish and Finnish repeatedly earlier this decade).

That said, I think that I’ve noticed diminishing returns in my 30-minutes-a-day routine for Hungarian and I’ve decided on this instead:

  • Every evening in which I don’t have an event or work to do, I have to watch an animated film in Hungarian. The whole way through.
  • Break from the routine of 30-minutes a day and assign that to Greenlandic instead, until either Nuuk Adventures comes out or until I feel very, very satisfied with my progress (and I still maintain that Greenlandic is by far the hardest language I’ve ever learned). One reason I’m doing this is that I need to keep my Greenlandic references in the game dialogue up-to-date and by really ensuring that I interact with it on a daily basis I can do that.
  • So now my two primary foci will be Greenlandic and a secondary language that will likely cycle with each month (obviously ones that I’ve already done before).

I think I should also write a bit about my Tumbuka adventure with uTalk. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

  • The fact that there is no spaced repetition (which, in simple terms, means “the app will backtrack your progress as time goes on in order to reflect your ‘forgetting things’”) makes the app less stressful but also the learning less effective.
  • I find myself forgetting basic phrases without that review.
  • The pronunciation by example (also featured in Transparent Language) is also REALLY well done.
  • Not being able to write things, as per my self-imposed challenge terms, REALLY hurts.
  • Not being able to look up grammar terms also really hurts as well.
  • The phrases are all useful.

 

Also I can’t make any plans quite yet but it seems that I will devote 2019 to Greenlandic and Micronesian Languages primarily (Kiribati, Palauan, Marshallese and MAYBE some languages of the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauruan if I can get resources for them).

That said, I’m also thinking about maintenance and reinventing my life (as many of us do often in our lives). But that’s for another post.

For 2018 I set myself an “impossible list” to see how far I could shoot, and sadly a number of difficult circumstances caused me to burn out completely. So for 2019 I’m going to probably have significantly less lofty goals. But that’s okay.

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