Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

Fijian After One Week: Progress Report!

One week ago, with the start of February, I decided to devote this month to improving my Greenlandic and my Fijian. Greenlandic has been going by better and the new video you’ll be getting at the end of February promises to be a real treat (and better than the December 2017 one on multiple fronts, or so I hope).

Fijian is interesting in the respect that it falls squarely in the middle of the difficulty curve for all of the languages I have ever attempted. It also incorporates English loan words in ways similar to those of Japanese or Burmese. Fijian radio also uses English code-switching to various degrees, making it possible for me to understand what’s “happening” more easily. (For example, on a piece about climate change, while almost all of the dialogue is in Fijian, some phrases like “do your part” or “hard to say” may find their way in, sandwiched between perfectly good Fijian sentences).

I’ll say that there is, in my opinion, NOTHING WRONG with English-code switching, and certainly not in a place where English is the language commonly seen on signs.

Allow me to explain: during British colonial rule there were Indians taken to Fiji as indenture servants. The language that developed in this community became known as “Fiji Hindi”, sometimes described by some of my Hindi-speaking friends as “Hindi with no rules”.

You can also watch my attempts to learn Fiji Hindi here:

Alongside them, of course, were the inhabitants of Fiji present from before, and their language is an Austronesian one, Fijian. Some call them Native Fijians, and ever since 2010 they have been referred to in officialdom as iTaukei (whereas Fijian refers to any citizen of Fiji regardless of ethnic extraction).

I would imagine the dance between the various languages in Fiji to be somewhat similar to what I had encountered in Greenland with Greenlandic and Danish last year (except this time with three languages, English, Fijian and Fiji Hindi, and with English having a more pronounced presence in Fiji than in Greenland). I wrote more about my experiences speaking Greenlandic in Greenland here.

Anyhow, yesterday I helped myself to this wonderful book and it has been hacking away steadily at all of my problem points with the language and I haven’t even owned the book for more than 30 hours yet!

vosa vakaviti

So, what have I done?

  • I got a basic understanding of the foundations and many of the ways to greet people, form sentences and alter verb tense.
  • The difficult-to-translate particles aren’t much of a problem anymore thanks to the Lonely Planet book clarifying exactly what “sa” and “se” mean. (Sa -> denotes a change of state or action and se -> denotes a state or action that is being continued).
  • The patterns of what sort of words I should expect to be English loan words is clarified
  • The patterns as to what English loan words look like in Fijian are clarified. Nurse -> Nasi. Jared -> Jereti.
  • How to passively recognize certain morphology patterns. Katakata -> warm. To turn an adjective into a verb meaning “making something that adjective”, add vaka at the beginning and taka at the end. Hence, to warm up becomes “vakakatakatataka”, which is EXTREMELY difficult to pronounce quickly (and given how often climate change comes up in Oceania, it’s a word I’ve ALREADY heard quite often).
  • Customs and cultures of Fiji, including relations between the iTaukei and the Findians.

 

Where I still have yet to go:

 

  • Distinctions between informal and formal language (Fijians may speak differently to foreigners than to each other, my Lonely Planet books tell me that certain words are used in excess in foreigner-speech and left out in proper speech).
  • Varieties (“dialects”) of Fijian
  • How the language sounds when spoken quickly (I remember that with Gilbertese last month I had an EXTREMELY shocking wake-up call when I realized exactly how fast I-Kiribati speak!)
  • Putting together sentences with ease.
  • Speaking at a natural speed (note that I did NOT say “speaking quickly”)

 

Where do I go from here?

 

Well, I think that right now I have the phrasebook and I will need to master each section individually. I think that if I learn all of the phrases in the book by heart, it will not make me absolutely fluent but enough so that I could reasonably claim BASIC proficiency.

 

From then, I could easily acquire more knowledge and vocabulary through reading, radio and even possibly doing the Huggins International 30-Day Challenge with Fijian at one point. I think that last one…it would have to come down to that before I leave, and if my plan to visit Fiji materializes, it will likely be in the summer. But even if I don’t, I’ll have gained many experiences with the language to cherish not also to mention advantages in learning other languages from Polynesia.

 

This is the beginning of something legendary!

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

Tahitian: My First Polynesian Language, My First Impressions

Every time I glimpse a language from the post-colonial world, I gain extraordinary insights into the damage and cruelty afflicted by the process as well as the fact that some cultures find themselves to various degrees of confusion.

Some are significantly healthy in terms of their cultural and linguistic identity, despite a lingering sense of having been hurt in the not-too-distant past (Greenland is one such example).

Others are similarly safe (more or less) but often find themselves under the boot of either economic attitudes, cultural disdain or wounds inflicted by the past (Welsh-speakers throughout the UK, both within and without of Wales, have encountered a vocal minority spreading lies that bilingual education harms children and that keeping Welsh alive is merely a waste of money and serves to exclude English speakers. I’m not even going to dignify these claims with a response.)

Others have found their languages on life support, or, in many more cases, have been killed, due to the results of colonialism. The vast majority of languages spoken on the continent in which I am now writing this have been sadly relegated to that graveyard.

Here’s about one more such language that finds itself on the brink, and it comes from a place you’ve definitely heard of.

Last week, knowing that I should start my projects now rather than later (even if I attempt to “pause” them later on down the line), I began learning a language of a place that my father visited before I was born, a place that I’ve been curious about since my childhood.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Tahiti.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "french polynesia flag"

Today is June 29th, which is a day in the history of French Polynesia that is fairly confused in its role. The Day (as well as the celebrations that tend to last for weeks afterwards) is the celebration of French Polynesia’s Autonomy.

Some see it as an Independence Day, others see it as a day worth mourning, given that it is a celebration of autonomy within the French Commonwealth rather than a full independence.

Regardless of how you see the day, I thought today would be a good day to write about my first impressions.

I’ve just been at it at nearly a week, so if you have any advice or comments, let me know. I feel fulfillment knowing that this dream that I’ve deferred for so long is finally becoming a reality, and that maybe other Polynesian Languages (such as Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan and Maori) may similarly follow suit.

Here are some of my reflections that I’m going to look back on one day. Who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll be a specialist in Polynesian Languages. I’d never say never… especially when I thought in 2008 that I would “never learn Finnish”!

  • I Had to Learn Danish to Access a Lot of Learning Materials in Greenlandic. Similarly, a Lot of Tahitian Learning Materials Are in French.

 

Interestingly enough I could say the same thing about Breton…sort of…given that a lot of scholars of Celtic languages may actually be from the British Isles, I found a significant amount of material accessible for English-speakers as far as the Breton-learning market was concerned. It goes without saying that knowing French would be very advantageous indeed in that department (and I learned Breton before I deemed my French was any good, precisely so I could write about the experience).

 

But for Tahitian, I’m finding that, aside from some phrasebooks and the like, material for learning Tahitian in-depth seems lacking unless I go over to the French side of the Internet. And this leads into my second point…

 

  • A Lot of the French Polynesian is, well in…you guessed it!

 

I don’t know a lot of the details as to various quotas required for French-language usage on TV and radio even in the overseas dependencies, but French language usage dominates on the Internet in Tahiti. As to whether it does in real-life is another thing (and perhaps those of you who have been to Tahiti, as I may indeed one day, could share your experiences!)

Like with Breton, I have had trouble in finding a consistent stream of material for Tahitian immersion. Maybe I need to look a bit further.

That said, I’m finally grateful that I have an “excuse” to improve my French (and yes, learning about Vanuatu / Bislama did help to minor degrees, but there are those that believe that the government is hanging on to its Francophone status so as to keep getting French aid money. I’ll back out of this debate…)

Truth be told: I really like endangered and rare languages (SURPRISE!). I don’t have the same enthusiasm for popular languages unless they somehow serve as bridges to the rarer ones. Voila.

An interesting side note: sometimes I tell my Francophone friends that my primary interest in the Francophone world lies in the South Pacific (which was true before I began learning Tahitian, by the way). A lot of them tend to respond as something like, “Oh, yeah, Vanuatu! I remember him! Haven’t heard much about him these days. How is he?”  Announcing my intentions to learn Tahitian last week at Mundo Lingo got me a similar response.

I find it very heartwarming that the French people I have met actually have a significant soft spot for these endangered languages within their commonwealth and it shows. They tend to admire those who devote time to them. I have never encountered a “why would you do that? How on earth…” or the even worse “why bother keeping it alive?” from any of them.

 

  • The Pronunciation is Very Easy

Like in Finnish, there are longer vowels and the long vowels can actually change the meaning of a word when substituted for a short one. In Tahitian, the line above the letter indicates that it is longer. Pronounce it with more length.

With the exception of the elongated vowels, Tahitian has a, e, i, o and u, pronounced almost exactly the way are pronounced in the Melanesian Creoles that I’ve studied and now speak fluently (Tok Pisin, Bislama and Pijin). For those who don’t have that reference point, these are similar to their pronunciations in Spanish.

There is a (an?) ” ‘ ” that is pronounced as a glottal stop. Now this is like the pause between an English “uh-oh”. Surprisingly, given that a large number of Americans are familiar with some Hawaiian, this may be familiar to you.

On a side note about Hawaiian popular culture, I think it also influenced Japan in much of the same way (and perhaps the same argument could be made for Polynesian culture as a whole!)

 

  • You Never Learn a Language from Absolute Zero, and Tahitian is no Exception.

 

The word for a village in Tahitian is “nu’u”, which I instantly recognized from the name of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa (for those unaware, the Polynesian languages resemble each other much like the Romance Languages do). Quick research reveals that Nuku’alofa is Tongan for “place of love” (nuku is the cognate word. One day I’d really like to learn Tongan, but I think one Poly Language at a time will do for now as well as … dropping or pausing a lot of my previous projects…)

The word for greeting is Aroha. Thanks to American Popular Culture / Pokémon Games, I need not tell you anymore.

The way to say “hello” is “ia ora na”, which I recognized from that one week I spent with Maori back in 2014 – “Kia ora” is their greeting.

And the Tahitian word for the ocean is certainly a word you may recognize:

“Moana”

EDIT: WHAAAAAAT? WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!!?!?! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT???!!?!

 

Wow, I honestly…wasn’t expecting that…I may have some issues with big corporations in general, but sometimes I have to hand it to Disney concerning the work they do with multilingualism, even if they do mostly focus on the developed world. (And hey…thanks for the Icelandic dubs!

Another thing to keep in mind, on the topic of Disney, is that Moana is actually known as Vaiana in Europe on account of…I’ve heard copyright issues and the other story I’ve heard involves the name of an Italian…well, you can look it up yourself if you’re so curious.

Vaiana is Tahitian as well, “water cave”

 

  • Can’t Wait to Learn More!

 

Seems that I have an exciting journey ahead in regards to seeing the true side of French Polynesia and its best-known island! I can’t say I’ll head in knowing what to expect, but much like the rest of my language journeys, I’ll know I’ll be forever changed!