My Valentine to Oceania: History’s FIRST-EVER Polyglot Video to Feature Only Pacific Island Languages!

Earlier today I uploaded this video (I was supposed to upload it on Valentine’s Day but logistics involving my classes and other obligations got in the way). Feel free to turn on the English subtitles using the “CC” button.

In this video I speak five languages from Oceania with NO other languages (not even English) included: Palauan, Tok Pisin, Fijian, Gilbertese / Kiribati and Bislama (with a conclusion in Tongan and Tuvaluan. I haven’t actively studied Tuvaluan for a while but if I’m headed to Fiji later on this year it is something I would like to know more about).

This is the first Oceania-exclusive polyglot video in human history.  

I filmed it using my Samsung device, while standing and without wearing my glasses. One reason I didn’t come off as more cheerful was the fact that my hand was seriously strained in having to hold the camera up the whole time.

I would like to take this time to thank my viewers and readers as well as, in particular, the many residents of Pacific Island countries that have given me feedback and encouragement. (Palau and Kiribati in particular gave me TONS of viewers who provided me constructive criticism and even publicized my material widely!)

Obviously my main focus is going to be on Fijian for the short-term future but the decision to learn languages from Oceania is one of the best decisions of my life.

Fun fact: I actually gave a presentation on Fiji for a Hebrew class I had at JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary) back in 2014. I related details about Yaqona (kava), chiefly families, the country’s geography and history, and tips for visiting. It was doing research for this presentation that I discovered Tok Pisin, the first language from Oceania that I learned AND the first that I learned to a C2 level. 

Here’s to many more years together, O Languages of the Southern Islands! I appreciate your presence in my life and the fact that I now see the whole universe differently because of you.

Learning Similar Languages: What Can Go Wrong and What Can Work

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with most novice language learners (and, being completely honest with all of you, most language learners, especially in the English-speaking world or with languages that are not English, stay novices permanently for a number of reasons) is the issue of learning similar languages.

Specifically, the issue of the Romance Languages comes into play often, and people scramble the vocabularies of Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes even Italian sometimes quite often.

To be fair, I’ve haven’t been COMPLETELY immune to this (for example, between German and Yiddish or between the Scandinavian Languages or similarly related Creole Languages). However, I found myself better equipped to handle this issue than most.

And there IS an easy way around it, and it has to do with emotional attachment to your target languages.

For most people, Spanish is an easy, useful language closer to English and Portuguese is an easy, useful language close to that one. But I’m curious if you asked them about what sort of native-speaker material or culture they genuinely associate with either of these cultures, what would you get?

I’ve put Portuguese on pause for the time being (and have for about a year now), but Spanish (despite my guarded antipathy towards popular languages) is something I associate with spunky YouTube channels and my experiences with my Spanish friends during my year in Poland. Sometimes the occasional Juan Magan song comes to mind as well. The language has a distinct flavor in my mind that I anchor with particular things, not phrases in Duolingo.

Here are some other anchored flavors for languages that are HEAVILY related to other languages that I know:

  • Danish: my time in Greenland, Rasmus Seebach, a host of ancient traditions and experiences I’ve had with Danish-speakers, Denmark’s animated film industry, THAT PRONUNCIATION OMG.
  • Tok Pisin: fiery opinion pieces in Wantok Niuspepa, Daniel Bilip, my Dad’s memories of Port Moresby, documentaries involving the police and the “raskols” (truly heartbreaking and 100% the fault of colonialism and aftershocks from World War II)
  • Trinidadian Creole: Proverbs, Calypso Music, my neighborhood, very memorable comedic sketches and talk shows, notable Indian influence in comparison to much of the Caribbean.

Most people don’t have any emotional reasons for learning and usually have an abundance of logical reasons or, worse, choosing a language because it is a combination of easy and/or useful.

Yes, it is possible to develop an emotional connection after the fact, but don’t try to bend your desires to what the world wants (the world is crazy enough as is and it doesn’t need another follower, please!)

Even if you do choose to pursue something for logical reasons, you’re going to be more drawn and put more time into things that make you feel better. I really, really like Swedish and Tok Pisin, French or Spanish not so much. Until that changes (if it ever does), improving my Swedish or Tok Pisin is going to be the path of least resistance and not only would I put more time into it but more of it would stick (which is even more important).

So you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with learning related languages?

If you have distinct flavors for each language, the possibility that you mix them up is going to be minimal. I don’t associate Norway’s country-music-infused pop hits with any other place, and Stockholm beats only belong in one place, regardless of how similar these languages may be. I’ve associated these languages with very different feelings and places in my brain and this is why I, at this juncture, virtually NEVER mix them up.

To not mix up languages, you need to collect experiences with them and anchor them in that language.

Interestingly, concerning the creoles of Melanesia, Bislama material on YouTube tends to involve a lot of Ni-Vanuatu flags, and Solomon Islander material uses the Solomon flag even MORE, thereby ensuring through a natural mechanism that I can anchor my material in Bislama and Pijin with their appropriate categories.

When people mix up languages or speak something like “Portuñol”, it’s a sign to me that they haven’t anchored their experiences in enough real-world happenings (or entertainment, for that matter). And that’s okay, as long as you take concrete steps to fix it.

I think that parents of twins may have no problem keeping them apart by virtue of the fact that they have different emotional attachments to each twin. You’ll have to do something similar.

Don’t be discouraged! Keep working!

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I Want to Learn Jamaican Patois…But HOW?

 

First off, anyone wanting to learning Jamaica Patois is a brave fellow (or fellowette?) and deserves praise. Because trust me, even in the language-learning world, there are NOT a lot of people that look kindly on it.

First off, what exactly is Jamaican Patois? Let’s turn to Wikipedia…IN Jamaican Patois!

(from jam.wikipedia.org)

 

“Wi a-chrai mek Patwa wan a ‘i Wikipidia languijdem. No Jamiekan Ingglish, Patwa. Nof a ‘i piejdem we rait aredi de ina Jamiekan Ingglish, a no Patwa. Jamiekan Ingglish a we muos a wi chat ebi die. Patwa a ‘i raa baan ting we unu griet gran muma did chat, we tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!”. Wah nex ting tu, a nof dayalek de ina Jumieka. Rait aatikl ina fi yu dayalek. Piipl wi andastan an iwi ton standad suun. Dis ya we mi a-rait a ‘i Wesmolan dayalek.”

 

Jamaican English is an everyday language that stands in stark contrast to the “raa baan ting” (raw born thing). In this paragraph you can see that it is associated with ancestry (“griet gran muma did chat” = “great-grandmother spoke”) and shame (tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!” = teacher beat all of you saying “Speak Properly!” unu -> all of you).

Even today, Creole languages, especially English creoles, suffer from undeserved derision, despite the fact that music in these languages is popular in every corner of the globe and many cultures associated with these places have influenced Anglophone culture on a very deep level. Virtually every American knows something about Jamaica in particular, much like many of them would know something about Japan or France.

The journey with Carribean Creoles for me is an interesting one and one that really shows to test how open-minded people really are.

Some language-learning events, especially free ones, have a problem. There are language enthusiasts (like me and my friends) and there are also people who happen to be bilingual or speak multiple languages on account of their UPBRINGING rather than their hobby. Most of the former tend to be open-minded explorers who share stories, the latter aren’t too different from the general population (in the respect that all levels of curiosity and open-mindedness, or lack thereof, exist among them. The nastiest things I’ve heard about my choice of languages have actually come from bilingual and “polyglot wannabes”.)

And no language in my repertoire gets a mixture of either scorn or admiration as much as Jamaican Patois does.

 

Anyhow, inspired by my followers (as I often am), I opened up for questions about how I learned Jamaican Patois and how I’m continuing with it.

For one, a multitude of free apps exist which can help for building vocabulary in a small sense but they are NOT substitutes for learning how to speak.

That would largely go to this book, which I know isn’t accessible to everyone, but when I showed it to a friend who had no knowledge of German she actually found it astonishingly useful regardless:

20171006_153211

You can purchase this book on Amazon and find it in bookstores around the German-speaking world, I also think that sellers in areas of the UK and US may also have it.

Another thing that I should also mention is the fact that having learned Krio of Sierra Leone beforehand definitely helped. Krio is further away from Standard English than Jamaican Patois is, and it also really helped me realize what sort of differences would exist in usage between Jamaican and English.

Let’s give some examples:

 

“we” is an all-purpose relative pronoun, “that”, “who” or “which”

Juwish piipl frahn Spien ahn Puotyugal we a ron frahn di “Ingkwizishan,”

Jewish people from Spain and Portugal WHO ran from the Inquisition.

 

You can use “fi” in order to indicate ownership. Works similar to the English word “for”

“mi” can mean “my” but also “fimi” can mean “mine” or “belonging to me”

 

Plurals are different:

Wan bwai -> tuu bwai

(One boy -> two boys)

OR

Di bwai dem (the boys, literally “the boys them”)

 

“Se” is used like “that” in English, as in “I said that you are doing a good job”. Krio and Bislama share the exact same usage.

Also, given the dialectical fragmentation of Jamaican Patois (note that the paragraph above mentions it!), no rule is absolute, and you’ll dance between standard English and Patois forms with regularity depending on who you’re talking with. It’s very much something you’ll need to get a sense for but your best bet is to imitate native speakers. Features present in some communities’ Patois may not be present in others.

Also, Wikipedia and various missionary translations into Jamaican Patois have also helped to significant degrees. It’s telling that religious organizations pay more attention to many languages that most global corporations don’t even give a second thought to.

There is Swiftkey Keyboard in Jamaican Patois as well, but its predictive text function, as of the time of writing, is off.

Omniglot.com also has useful websites in many regards including a newly-added phrase page for Jamaican Patois.

What’s more, a bit of a warning: there is no standardized form of Jamaican Patois (as noted in the first instance of the language at the top of the page) so you’ll need significant exposure to a handful of sources in order to get a good grounding in something consistent.

 

And here also comes another important question: how do you get native speakers to speak it with you?

For one, contrary to popular belief, the Carribean Islanders I have encountered have been VERY thrilled to hear me “chat Patwa” (full disclosure: I’m visibly white, but there are also white and Asian Jamaicans as well who speak fluent Patois from birth. The “out of many, one people” motto is important to Jamaican national identity and virtually every Jamaican knows many aspects of their quilt-history which ties together elements from all corners of the globe).

One issue is the fact that often I encounter people who are second-generation and, as a result, their knowledge of Patois is confined to something more passive. But that’s okay. This is not your fault, this is a fault of creole-shaming present in this world at large in general and I think, to some degree, it’s also found in a lot of these island countries as well (not just in places like the U.S. and Canada).

Obviously one thing you really can do in order to build your “cred” in order to fully feel like a “yardie” would be to (1) use proverbs you’ve heard (Carribean Islanders, much like Slavs, very much value proverbs and sayings and use them in their speech. Each of the nations has their own collection that is very foreign to the other islands. That is to say, Vincentians or Trinidadians may not understand Jamaican proverbs, and vice-versa). (2) If you don’t have proverbs, look online or ask your Jamaican friends for some. Even if they don’t have proverbs, they may actually have SOMETHING to share with you.

Especially with Jamaican Patois, a key element is to think in phrases, not individual words. If you are a native speaker of English, you have a HUGE advantage because you already think in “chunks” in English rather than individual words and you can transmute that way of thinking into your newly forming Jamaican Patois as well.

Much like the struggle I had with Solomon Islands Pijin, in which Pijin and English are juggled in a lot of content produced in the Solomon Islands, Jamaica has an interesting situation as well. Except for even more so, because with the English Creoles of the Carribean some people will change registers IN THE MIDDLE OF SPEAKING. It’s a bit like speaking TWO LANGUAGES AT ONCE and it takes time getting used to. (The fact that this happens so much gives fuel to the dialect side of the dialect-versus-language debate, but I think that the dialect side really only serves no purpose other than to discourage study of these cultures so I’ll put that out there plainly).

Also, don’t worry that you’re “making fun” of their language at all. I hear Jamaican Patois more often on the streets of New York than Japanese or Italian. Also friends of Jamaicans pick up Patois as well (and this should be no surprise to anyone. A lot of these “why speak their language? Won’t they just make fun of me or use English?” are…limiting beliefs that deserve to be pushed out. A lot of it is in your head.

Have YOU learn Jamaican Patois or another Carribean Creole at any point? How did that go for you? Let me know!

2017: A Final Reflection

Well, here I am at what is the conclusion of the most legendary year of my life!

I think the one thing that changed the most about me over the course of this year was that I became very secure in my identity and, as a result, stopped taking forms of rejection so personally (someone says bad things about me online? Not my issue, I’m a hero! Someone doesn’t want to engage meaningfully in a conversation with me? I know I’m good at what I do, it reflects on THAT person!)

Despite the fact that I sometimes have an abrasive style in both writing and in real life, people who have met me in person do rightly think that I am very friendly.

Here’s the time for me to examine each of my languages and how I could improve:

On top of my fluency list are the Creoles of Melanesia, Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama. I have a very good grasp of vocabulary and I can listen to songs, radio and other forms of entertainment in these languages without flinching. In conversations I can manage to say everything, but I tried filming a Let’s Play video in Tok Pisin and my own self-doubt and self-freezing (that were an issue with me making videos even in English earlier this year!) got in the way.

What I’m going to need to do from this point on isn’t as much vocabulary building, but sheer immersion. I have to become one with the Pacific Islands, I have to live and breathe the cultures of Melanesia as though I were raised in Lae city myself.

The same is also true with my other very good (or almost very good with some consistency) languages: Trinidadian Creole, Yiddish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, German and Spanish (the last two being the weakest of the bunch).

Next up in the “lower levels of fluency” line are Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Breton, Jamaican Patois and the two that I am sometimes good enough in Icelandic and French. Polish and Irish used to be up there but fell down.

These are the hardest to diagnose because each one of them has a very unique problem. Finnish and Hebrew are definitely my strongest of that group, with Krio and Breton being next up.

Okay:

Hebrew – listening with immersion (I’m going to need to find films and use them. Often! If Hebrew were as similar to English as Danish was I’d probably speak it at C1 right now).

Finnish – continuing with teaching it as an L2 certainly helps but I’m also going to need to do some writing and translation exercises. Luckily I have a project lined up for that in 2018!

Krio – same as Finnish above, minus the teaching aspect. Written material in Krio is harder to find than in Finnish (not a surprise, despite the fact that more people in the world speak Krio fluently than speak Finnish [!])

Breton – I need more TV shows (luckily I found a number of good ones thanks to Reddit. Also a Let’s Play Channel of sorts!)

Jamaican Patois – Translation exercises would be helpful as long as I learn to READ OUT LOUD. I have to use all of my senses otherwise it’s just going to be passive understanding. I can’t afford to have just a passive understanding (even though that in of itself is very good), given that I’m practically living in Jamaica given where in New York City I live.

Icelandic – the Anki deck. I have to continue with that. It’s been solving almost every single one of my problems!

French – The grammar needs brushing up. I need to detect my weak points in conversation (past tense is a big one) and patch up the holes.

 

Next we have Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian and Polish. They are all weak across the board in many regards and have full of holes. My biggest holes in them are: vocabulary for Greenlandic, Lao and Hungarian, grammar for Hungarian and Polish. I guess it’s just an issue of “keep using them”.

For Greenlandic I have the Memrise course and for Hungarian I have the 30-Day Speaking Challenge. I also have Anki decks for all of these languages except for Polish.

 

In its own category is my new project with Vincentian Creole (of St. Vincent and the Grenadines). The first language I’ve learned with no resources to learn it (that I can find), I’ll detail what I’m doing another time. It will be VERY interesting to read about!

 

The rest of my languages are too weak to judge with the exceptions of Burmese, Irish, Cornish and Kiribati / Gilbertese.

I have a good grasp of the grammar of all of them, I just need to use it in exercises, especially speaking exercises.

It’s a little bit hard to diagnose things when there are CONSISTENT problems across the language. But luckily usage will be enough to patch them up.

 

In light of the #CleartheList challenge hopping around Social Media at the moment, here is my list for January 2018:

For Hungarian:

 

  • Recordings every day
  • One episode of Pokémon dubbed in Hungarian every week
  • One full-length Hungarian movie every week.
  • Read out loud one lesson from Colloquial Hungarian once every week.

 

For Kiribati / Gilbertese:

  • Do the tasks for the Mango Language January 2018 challenge every day.
  • Acquire new songs in Gilbertese every week.
  • Film a new episode of “Jared Gimbel Learns Kiribati” every week.
  • Write a status in Gilbertese every week.

 

For Vincentian Creole:

 

  • Listen to one Bible story audio once every day.

 

Find and translate (into English) an article in each of the following languages. Write word-by-word translations for each sentence:

 

  • Bislama
  • Pijin
  • Tok Pisin

 

For Greenlandic / Lao (Bonus points!):

 

  • Record the speaking challenge prompts in these alongside the Hungarian challenge.

 

I look forward to making another list for 2018 and beyond.

I’ll publish my FULL LIST of goals for 2018 TOMORROW!

2017 was the best year of my life in a professional sense. And 2018 promises to be nothing less of continuing that miracle.

May you have similar fortune as well!

last pic of 2017

How to Build Mental Discipline

One of my big goals for 2017 was to become more focused in my goals. Granted, in a sense, for all of us living in the developed world in the 21st century, it is getting both easier and harder. Easier because the maturity we have makes us focus more on what we really want as time goes by, and harder because the petite distractions seem to be multiplying.

A friend of mine, Naoki Watanabe, wanted me to write this post. He is a hero in many online language communities, having truly brought polyglots together from all throughout the world in online for on Facebook, not also to mention his admiration of many minority languages throughout the world. Also a fellow Hungarian enthusiast! (Congratulations on getting B1 in Hungarian, by the way!)

Let’s begin with rule 0 about building mental discipline.

Even if you don’t take steps to give yourself mental discipline now, you will grow into it eventually. Your mental discipline will get stronger with each new “milestone”. This could be getting degrees, passing a semester, completing projects, getting a new job or a raise, or any variety of transition.

However, 2017 was a good year for me in the respect that I am realizing that I have, more than ever, realized how mental discipline can be “hacked”.

Let’s hear some of my newfound revelations, shall we?

  • Use REALISTIC promises to bind you to your commitments. Post them in public places (such as your Facebook Status) or, if you come from a culture in which giving your word is binding (this could or could not be religious), say “If I don’t do X, then I will do Y” (where Y is a negative consequence).

 

In June 2017 I took it upon myself to learn Krio. Too much time spent with my family who lived in Sierra Leone, and it was important for me to connect to a culture that my parents were a part of. What’s more, given as it is almost certain that my parents will never return there, I will also get to see the face of the modern Sierra Leone (even if I don’t visit there, given the whole Internet thing).

I met my goal in being able to have conversations! I still have a long ways to go (it is currently my weakest Creole Language, with the Melanesian Creoles of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama being my strongest).

I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t do this:

“30 minutes of Krio, in some way, every day. If you don’t, you have to delete your Facebook account” (!!!)

There was one time I sadly needed to walk away from a party that I really enjoyed so that I could go home and meet my quota. Cruel? Yes. But hey, I speak Krio.

Maybe not as well as I would like (my super-high standards get the best of me sometimes), but it’s not “a few words” or “a few sentences” it’s being able to speak it in a capacity that I would be able to navigate Sierra Leone without using Standard English much like I did in Greenland without using English.

 

  • Have an Ego

 

I have a bit of an “Ash Ketchum” complex when it comes to my life. I have this overwhelming desire to be the best and to let the world know. I had this understanding since I was seven years old that my life was going to be unique, that I was going to try everything, explore everything, and share everything with everybody.

In my 20’s I found out that there are a lot of people who will not put more effort into their life any more than they absolutely have to. Also there are a lot of people who will spend a lot of time talking about nothing, not exploring, nor on any great quest for self-improvement, much less wanting to “SHOW THE WORLD” anything.

I don’t understand people like these. But I think I may understand their vantage point.

I was raised with a strong idea, since early childhood, that I was the most brilliant person ever who HAD to use his gifts for something. A lot of people were raised with the idea that they were average, and that average was good, if not in fact preferable to being a “star”.

How does this tie to mental discipline?

You have to imagine yourself as the hero of your TV show, someone who people look up to and see as a role model.

Even if you’re not there, you will be. Try to tell yourself that!

Simply put, “if I don’t write this blog post about Bislama, I don’t see anyone else who will!”

I was fed this idea that I was and am a hero and that, if I am lazy, the world suffers. We all need that mindset.

 

  • IF you must take a break, do it in a way that will build value for other people.

 

Sometimes you have to watch TV, play a game or read something mindless.

In the mid-2010’s I discovered a way I could convert my “downtime” towards practicing my languages. Why use YouTube in English when I could do it in Norwegian? And even then, there are a lot of well-known YouTube channels that have fan-added subtitles in many other languages as well!

But if you need to play a game or watch some TV or what-have-you, feel free to transform it into something that other people can enjoy…what if you write about what you saw, like in a review, and then publish it on a blog? What if you record yourself playing the game with commentary instead? If you speak a language natively that isn’t English, could you contribute fan-made subtitles towards your favorite video?

You can’t be working all of the time, and I’m fully aware of that, but with some small tricks like these you can set yourself in a more productive headspace. And once you have these patterns locked into place, you’ll find the need to keep creating instead of spinning time away. And the world will be better off for it.

 

  • Be Aware of Emotional Traps Online

 

The corporate world wants to manipulate you and distract you from your goals. It also wants to toss your emotions into clicking and buying products.

Recognize when links are doing this to you, recognize when AUTHORS are doing this to you, and then tell yourself firmly. “I, (name), am above these forms of manipulation”. And don’t click on the video and/or link.

Sometimes I used to get worried about a lot of things (especially with last year’s US election). But interestingly now, I’ve learned to see patterns in which my emotions are being played with. If there’s clickbait of any variety, or any variety of manipulation any product pulls in order to get you invested, I imagine the announcer in the NYC subway system:

“If you drop something on the tracks, LEAVE IT”.

You’ll forget about whatever link you didn’t click on in a matter of hours. I can almost promise you that.

 

  • Imagine You are a World Champion or a World Champion To-Be

 

One time I significantly messed up leading a service at a synagogue when I was 13-14 years old. I was quite upset about it. But one of my friends told me afterwards that “you’re not Michael Jordan. The world expects the best from Michael Jordan. You’re just a kid”.

More than a decade later, I find myself that person who people expect the best of. And as a result, I can’t let them down. Even if I may have to at some times (such as the fact that I dashed away on the 30-Day Burmese Challenge yesterday on account of personal circumstances. I’ll still be doing the restaurant and the final video thing, though!), I realize that my overall behavior has to be that of a global role model.

Pretend you have that role, and then you’ll grow into it. Even if people doubt you have “what it takes” at first, you’ll sway (most of) them eventually with enough willpower.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

 

I also realize that there is such a thing as bad days, illnesses, and personal setbacks. Keep in mind that mental discipline isn’t something you need to have ABSOLUTELY all of the time, just most of the time. I know I couldn’t have possibly had mental discipline when I got Lyme Disease in November 2015. But your primary goal is to ensure that you have it on the AVERAGE day (most people usually have it on their good days, only).

Did you find this advice helpful? Let me know!

Here’s hoping that you, the Champion, can show the world just what a fantastic beacon to humanity you really are! Onwards!

2015-07-04 10.36.26

Turtle Pond in Austin, Texas

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 Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA