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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Trussel.com

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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I Want to Learn Tok Pisin. What Do I Do?

The most commonly spoken language of the country in the world with the most languages, Tok Pisin is a language that unites Papua New Guinea and its manifold ethnicities. My first English Creole Language, Tok Pisin was described by a friend of mine as “Jamaican Patois that seems completely unintelligible to the native English speaker”.

Let’s head over to Glosbe, a fantastic resource that combines the dictionary and sentence database in many languages of the world, and look at a sample sentence to see how much of it you can understand:

“Em i nambawan gutpela pasin bilong laikim ol narapela, olsem God Jehova yet i kamapim.”

Rendered by the English translation as:

It is the highest form of love, as exemplified in Jehovah God himself.

But try looking at it this way:

“Him is number one good fellow fashion belong like him all ‘nother fellow all same God Jehova yet is come up him”

And let’s try the sentence after that (I looked up “love”  in Glosbe and that’s where I’m getting these sentences from)

6 Ol gutpela wasman i wok strong long tingim olgeta wan wan sipsip long kongrigesen.

(6 Loving Christian shepherds endeavor to show personal interest in each sheep in the congregation.)

Rendered literally:

“Six all good fellow watch man is work strong long think him altogether one one sheep sheep long congregation”

If you’re learning a language from the developing world, as thing stand, you’ll encounter a LOT of materials for Christian missionaries. Tok Pisin is no exception to this.

Tok Pisin is a fascinating language and the first one that I acquired a C2 level in (which is denotes being able to understand pretty much everything and use very, very well). My interest was sparked in it as a result of my father’s travels in Papua New Guinea (in Port Moresby and Madang in particular).

Various opportunities that Tok Pisin provide include:

  • A growing community of L2 learners from throughout the world, and not just in Oceania.
  • Fascinating music that is very homemade but also unforgettable and honest.
  • News reports and radio in Tok Pisin that portray the manifold struggles of what it is to be a developing country right now.
  • If you do live in Australia or nearby, many employment opportunities (especially if you work in medicine or similar fields).
  • Even if you don’t live in Australia, translators for Tok Pisin and other languages for Oceania seem to be fairly sought after!
  • Travel opportunities in the PNG heartlands.

So let’s introduce you on how to start the journey, shall we?

For one, a book I would highly recommend for beginners is the increasingly available Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook, which includes Tok Pisin and its grammar explained in detail, not also to mention cultural notes, as well as other sections in that book on Bislama (Vanuatu) and Pijin (Solomon Islands)

These two languages, while more closely related to each other, are also more closely related to English and use slightly more complicated prepositions. In Bislama the verb system has an element of vowel harmony as well that Tok Pisin doesn’t have. Bislama also has more French influence than either Pijin or Tok Pisin. Tok Pisin also has notable German influence as well, and so to say “even though” or “it doesn’t matter” you say “maski” which is a form of “macht nichts” (“never mind”, or “don’t do anything”)

German missionaries were in the process of standardizing Tok Pisin and spreading its usage but then World War I happened which through a wrench in the whole process. (Yes, Germany had a colonial empire in that area of the world, Nauru also was one of their holdings as well).

Anyhow, the Lonely Planet Book doesn’t have a dictionary but will provide very useful phrases as well as the most essential and clear grammar guide that you can ask for.

The Live Lingua Project also has its own Tok Pisin textbook that is written in more detail.

After that you can put “Redio Tok Pisin” into YouTube and rehearse your skills, not also to mention various materials for governments, industries and yes, missionaries:

An essential resource as well as is a Tok Pisin Memrise course that has 2400 words which are essential for having fluid conversations. This course was ESSENTIAL for me becoming fluent in the language. You can find it here: https://www.memrise.com/course/135215/tok-pisin-2400/

(You can access this course from the desktop and then if you connect the Memrise app to your account, you can access it [and all other user-made courses] in the app as well).

I also have the Anki Version of this course as well (ask me if you want me to send it to you).

What’s more, Tok Pisin also has a “website” (https://www.tok-pisin.com/).

Other resources would include Wantok Niuspepa, the one Tok Pisin Language newspaper still remaining in Papua New Guinea and EMTV Online (which broadcasts smaller things more readily accessible for beginners).

You’ll notice that in some materials, especially distributed in cities or towns, that there is a bit of a “hopping” between English and Tok Pisin, and the usage of English is, obviously, spreading. That said, Tok Pisin is still a very important element of PNG culture and still the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea.

Lastly, Wikipedia has a Tok Pisin edition at: https://tpi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran_pes

Keep in mind that while native speakers of Tok Pisin exist, most speakers of the language will speak it fluently as a second language (as some people of Papua New Guinea may also know English). This means that already you have a chance to be on equal footing with most people who speak it.

Mi hop olsem bai yu laikim Tok Pisin tumas! (I hope you will like Tok Pisin a lot!)

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Overwhelmed and Defeated: My Decision to Drop Out of the Burmese Challenge and What It Means

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

Speaking of darkness, I think today would be a good day to admit something:

Not everything goes right in my world.

A lot of people hear about me, see the MundoLingo stickers on my shirt, or otherwise get out of me the fact that I am a hyperpolyglot and assume that I have an “easy” time picking up new languages.

Well, with the exceptions of those very closely related to ones I know already, the answer is…no, I don’t have an easy time with it. I would venture that no one anywhere actually does. Usually, as was the case with some of my languages like Hebrew, Finnish and even Sierra Leone Krio earlier this year, it was a case of “doing something that you’re not very good at until you find yourself slowly leveling up until you’re reasonable and, then, eventually, very good”.

True, learning additional languages does enable you to detect patterns more easily and find uncanny similarities between even the most distant of languages (The Creoles I’ve studied and languages of Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed, share similarities in grammatical forms). But despite any advantages one may or may not have, it becomes an issue of grit and determination.

Alas, for my 30-Day Burmese Challenge too many things got in the way. The path to developing my video game required extra investment on my part. I felt as though a lot of the tasks in the last ten days were just too hard given my current level of Burmese. What’s more, I actually had a friend of mine die earlier this week.

That said, for January 2018 I will continue with a renewed plan keeping in mind “what I did wrong”.

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For one:

  • I may have overestimated my level of Burmese.
  • I may have overestimated what “willpower” alone can do.
  • I may have been affected by the seasons.
  • I may have been affected by transitions (a video game that I’ve tested is scheduled for a release in the near future).
  • I may have just chosen to do TOO MUCH.

That last point is important. The Lao project was a success because I felt that it was the right amount. With Greenlandic AND Burmese at the same time, I reached my breaking point. It would be one thing if one of them were a European Language with a lot of cognates to English and political power on the web. (I expect my January 2018 Hungarian challenge to be a LOT easier than anything I’ve done with my 30-day Challenges for non-Western languages thus far).

No one succeeds all of the time. If you think that someone is, you’re just looking at the surface.

I think the “beginning of the end” may have been when I watched a Burmese film with a lot of monk characters and I found myself unable to understand a lot of what was being said (by comparison, even with Lao which I had significantly LESS experience with, I was capable of understanding a good 30%, and for Greenlandic roughly a bit more).

Will I give up Burmese? Definitely not.

Am I glad I did this? Most certainly. AND I am likely to do the restaurant challenge next week AND put together the final video, most likely over the course of the weekend.

But I’m going to have to redo my plan for January 2018:

January 2018: Hungarian 30-Day Speaking Challenge. I think this will help a lot with my vocabulary gaps.

Also January 2018: Vincentian Creole 2-Week Challenge. Expose myself to Vincentian Creole (of St. Vincent and the Grenadines) every day from January 1st until January 14th. Then afterwards I’ll do one of the following:

  • Antiguan Creole for second half of January 2018
  • Grenadian Creole for second half of January 2018 (if I get the book)
  • Review Caribbean Creoles I already know well for the second half of January 2018 (Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole and including Sierra Leone Creole as an honorary member).

Already I’m beginning to listen to Vincentian material every day during my commute. I’ll tell you more about it in another post. Although it has been interesting so far.

It’s been the first language I’ve been learning with literally NO resources for it that I can find. I’ve found religious materials for Christians and have been listening to them and NOTING the differences between Jamaican Patois and “Trini” to the best of my ability.

What’s more, the Grenada Market responded enthusiastically with my desire to find more materials to learn Grenadian Creole. Let’s hope I have luck.

Obviously in February and beyond I’ll turn my focus elsewhere other than Hungary and the Caribbean.

In the meantime, I’m drawing up an ambitious list of what I want done for 2018. And boy, will I dwarf every other year with what will happen!

May light be ever-present in your life!

Hungary and Vincy

Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

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The Fascinating World of Mooré, Moré, Mossi…That Language Spoken in Burkina Faso…

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you’re probably not too surprised to learn that a new national holiday of a country that most people don’t know much about shows up about every week or so.

In the case of today, we go to West Africa, in particular to Burkina Faso, which is where a language I’m currently learning is primarily spoken—Mooré, Moré, Mossi…however you want to spell it.

While today (August 5th) is the Burkinabe Independence Day (more on the word “Burkinabe” in a moment), something I’ve sadly noticed is that only developed countries seem to get Google Doodles for their national days (so Peru and Norway get them, but Vanuatu and Burkina Faso, not so much).

Another trend I need to speak to is the fact that only official colonial languages tend to be used in the interfaces of the Google Search Engine as it is localized in the developing world (Sierra Leone and the Seychelles Islands are noteworthy exceptions in Africa that I can think of), and sometimes the “actual” local languages are completely glossed over. It’s truly a shame because I think people need to realize the true extent of linguistic diversity in the developed world!

Burkina Faso is the only country name I can think of that actually uses two distinct languages in its name. “Burkina” in Mooré means “land of honest people” and Faso in Diouala (another language of the country) means “fatherland”. Further complicating matters is the fact that someone from Burkina Faso is “Burkinabe”, and the “–be” suffix comes from yet a third language of the region, Fulani.

But you’re probably wondering exactly why I chose this language and not many other languages besides, even when you just take Africa into consideration.

For one, my father really wanted to provide medical help in French-speaking areas of West Africa in the same way that he did in Sudan and in Sierra Leone. He actually even got tapes to learn French, and while my sister and I learned French at the time, he himself struggled.

As a result, I actually have three native languages (English, Ancient Hebrew and French) but I forgot French since then and had to re-learn it as an adult. I can read EXCELLENTLY, but I can’t really speak it consistently well (although sometimes I can speak it very well if I’m in a good mood or studied correctly that particular day).

I also saw pictures of Ouagadougou (yes, that is the name of the Burkinabe capital), and it looks like it was taken out of a style guide for a fantasy video game!

Have yourself a look:

ouagadougou.PNG

What’s more, after my study of Salone Krio (Salone = Sierra Leone), I really wanted to see how many similarities there would be to another African Language. Yes, I could have chosen one closer to Salone, but I’ve had a fascination with Burkina Faso for a long time. Life is too short and too precious to not learn the languages you want. So if there’s any language you want to learn, no matter what it is, do something about it. Now. Even if you can’t focus all of your time on it, just learn a few words to sate your curiosity. Learn something about the culture of that language. You won’t regret it.

Since I was young I was (and continue to be) very heartbroken by the way that African cultures are underrepresented or, even worse, distorted and portrayed as uniform in many aspects of American popular culture. Perhaps this has to do with the Atlantic Slave Trade, which really encouraged a lot of the slaves to think that the cultures of their homelands was worthless and should be discarded in favor of whatever cultures or religious practices their owners had.

In an era of climate change and unfolding civil wars, the true aspects of this inequality are coming out to literally be deadly to entire ethnicities, peoples and countries.

We NEED more people who take languages from the developing world seriously. It will help these places heal. I remember hearing from my father’s friends who were priests about the many sides of life in Tanzania and the way that they enthusiastically injected entire dialogue snippets in Swahili in their narratives, complete with English translations afterwards. Truly magical.

Luckily, thanks to the Peace Corps and Live Lingua Project, both available online, you can learn many of these developing-world languages for FREE!

Anyhow, something about Burkina Faso.

I’ve been learning Mossi for about a month now and I’m nowhere near conversational and my vocabulary has significant gaps, even on a basic level. However, thanks to books I’ve been capable of finding idioms and other curiosities about the language that I really like and that I think should be shared:

 

  1. To say Happy Birthday in Mossi, say “Ne y taabo”, which is a greeting that is used for all occasions that occur on a yearly basis. Use it for birthdays and to someone who just drank water at the conclusion of fasting during Ramadan.

To say “Happy New Year”, use this phrase: “Wend na kõ-d veere” (the first two e’s in the sentence should be nasalized but it won’t show up in my orthography). It roughly means “may God show us next year”.

The nasal o looks identical to the Estonian õ (a sound that is extremely difficult for foreigners to pronounce and not pronounced the way it is in Mossi), which did lead to confusion despite the fact that I’ve chosen to abandon Estonian for the time being in favor of languages that my heart yearns for.

 

  1. For those unaware of what nasal vowels are, these are pronounced with your nose. The two European Languages that I associate most with nasal sounds are Portuguese and Polish, although even when Europe is taken by itself they aren’t the only ones that have them.

Mossi actually has nasal vowels for a, e, i, o and u! (Polish, by comparison, just has a nasal e and a nasal a). This meant that I needed to expand my repertoire of nasal vowels. But hey, at least they’re not click sounds, which would be an interesting thing to write about in any case. (Mossi doesn’t have these)

 

  1. Perhaps due to influence from Islam, a lot of greetings and wishes involve an invocation of God:

 

Oh My God.PNG

 

And you answer any of the God-blessings with “Amina” (Amen in Hebrew is a cognate to this word from Arabic).

Interestingly enough, Amina is also a female name. Which means that she must go through life with a significant amount of confusion. Or not.

 

  1. The money system is based on the 5-franc note, and so 15 francs would actually be expressed as “3 wakirs” In other words, in the oral language you somewhat have to clash with whatever numbers you actually see on your bills or coins.

Wikipedia tells me that Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo all use the West African Franc. I’m curious if they also use the same system as well…

 

  1. And probably the coolest expression I’ve come across in Mossi, is a congratulations or a good luck: Wend na maan zũ-noogo, which means “May God give you a capacity to survive near-death experiences against all favorable odds”. One who has a near-death experience and has survived (August 2005 in Glacier National Park comes to my mind immediately) has acquired “zũ-noogo”

I can’t wait to grapple with this fascinating language in more depth! At the present moment it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be visiting Africa (although there was that one time I encountered a Burkinabe bar tender in Manhattan who was conversational in ten langauges!), but who knows what sort of opportunities for personal and professional development lie ahead?

Because if there’s one thing my journey has taught me, it is that doing the stranger thing always gets you noticed and respected more. And I’m going to continue to do that for as long as I can.

Ne y taabo!

burkina faso