All About Solomon Islands Pijin, or How I Learned a Language in Two Weeks

Would you believe me if I told you that I became conversational in a language in nearly two weeks? It happened, actually, and it was during Passover 2016 when I was “vacationing” at my parents’ house.

The language I mastered during that “holiday season”, as it were, was Solomon Islands Pijin, which is unique among the languages I speak by virtue of the fact that it was, until VERY recently, almost entirely a spoken language!

Yes, there are translations of the Bible into Pijin, but what really brought about a “writing revolution” in the Solomons was actually the advent of mobile phones.

(Something you should know about mobile phones in the developing world, and I saw this when I was in rural Myanmar as well: they are a LOT more common than you think they are! This is true even among very poor people).

You’re probably here wondering “Jared, why are you writing about this topic today rather than, let’s say, any other day?”

Well, you’ve probably guessed the pattern by now…today is July 7th, the Independence Day of the Solomon Islands—home to a culture of forward-looking and friendly people who also have been responsible for some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life.

You’ve gotten this far and you probably want to know what Solomon Islands Pijin is. So let’s treat you to a sample, shall we?

Iso an Jekob

Okay, as an English-speaker you probably recognize a significant amount of words, but are probably genuinely confused with the most common words.

You’re probably wondering, “what is this and why does it exist?”

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

When British Colonizers came to Australia and Fiji, they set up plantations and then proceeded to “blackbird” locals from the nearby areas to work at the plantation. Blackbirding did involve forced kidnapping and other morally questionable methods (although there were instances of fair work being involved).

So you have people from a variety of areas—namely, Australia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands—and they’re speaking a huge host of languages with each other but, for the sake of working for English-speakers, they need to find a way to communicate both with themselves and with their colonial masters.

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

The variety of English that was created as a result of these plantation experiences was a Pidgin English, one that was used to communicate between the locals and the British who ran the plantations.

However, given as there was no formal language training for the workers, they made significant shortcuts in order to learn how to communicate as quickly as possible (you can probably guess from this that Creole Languages can be mastered in a very short time in comparison to other languages!)

The pidgins thereby developed were noted by the British as being highly efficient, although no doubt they were made fun of by English speakers very frequently (and, in some cases even today, continue to be).

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

The primary difference between a pidgin language and a creole language is that a creole is a pidgin that has acquired enough vocabulary to be someone’s native tongue. A pidgin language is just a fusion of various languages, usually with a base in a European tongue (Portuguese, French and English are the most common for creole languages) used to communicate, but its vocabulary does not have to be extensive the way a creole does.

Even so, creole languages usually have significantly smaller comprehensive vocabularies than many other languages (again, efficiency).

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Solomon Islands?

So when the plantations ceased to be, the various workers often found their way back home. But as a result of the experience in the plantations in which various ethnicities that had not been in contact with each other developed a means to talk with each other as a result of the pidgin, that language followed them home.

Not only that, it also transformed into creole languages and became widespread enough in places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Torres Strait in order to become the primary method of communication in those countries.

This also became important because it enabled these countries to develop linguistic identities that were separate from European powers. This is the reason that Vanuatu’s national anthem is actually the only in the world that is written in an English Creole Language. Sandwiched between British and French influence and constantly pressured to “choose teams”, the Ni-Vanuatu national movement opted for its own team…namely, Bislama, one of the “children” of the plantation creoles.

So that you know, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Torres Strait Creole are siblings. There are also related creoles spoken by some aboriginal communities in mainland Australia, although they diverge from these four more substantially.

It makes sense, because barely a few centuries ago these were actually all the same language! But as a result of varying factors (due to [1] what local languages contributed to the creole spoken there and [2] which European powers exerted more influence), these languages are different.

Bislama has French loan words, Tok Pisin has German loan words, and Solomon Islands Pijin is comparatively lacking in both of these.

 

Okay, Why Should I Care? Are You Going to Tell me a Reason (or four) that I should learn it?

 

Yes, indeed!

For one, the Melanesian Creoles (that I’m not listing again for the umpteenth time) are very similar. Given that I studied Tok Pisin before studying Pijin it is no surprise that I became conversational, if not fluent, in record time.

Yes, there are differences, especially with the Pijin-trademarked question word, “waswe”, which goes at the beginning of sentences (probably a fusion of “which-what-where”, if you ask me). It also serves as a “why?” or a “what if?” or a “is it really?” or “do you think so?”. Pijin also relies more heavily on the f sound which does not appear as frequently in Tok Pisin (and a lot of Tok Pisin I’ve heard actually excludes it with noteworthy frequency).

Pijin and Bislama are sometimes even believed to be dialects of the same language (and some would even include Tok Pisin in this dynamic). No doubt they were, once upon a time, but I think that there are enough differences between them to actually separate them as genuine linguistic entities but that essay is a story for another time (or you could ask me in the comments!)

Pijin is an excellent moral choice for your next language, given that a lot of the struggles concerning countries that many people in the world don’t think about (as well as the developing country’s choice whether or not to partner up with developed countries for the sake of resource harvesting or economic development) will give you a truer insight into where the planet stands and where we should go from here.

What’s more, given that English is an official language of the Solomon Islands and is used in business writing as well as in the country’s national anthem, a lot of prospective language learners tend to overlook Pijin. This leaves the Pijin learners primarily in two camps (with exceptions like myself): (1) missionaries and (2) Peace Corps folks.

Your language choice can be morally motivated and it can make you a mini-ambassador for the countries and cultures that you may not represent on your passport but do represent in regards to which cultures you “tip your hat to”. We need more people who can share stories and cultural narratives from all over the world, rather than from the world’s most powerful states. And with Pijin’s similarity to English, you can become that ambassador in no time! (well…in some time…)

Solomon music is also the best I’ve heard from the developing world, period. Sharzy has become an international icon of sorts, and his music may seem uncannily familiar to you. What’s more, if you speak English, especially as a native language, you’ll be surprised how many Pijin songs you may come to understand with a few days’ practice, sometimes so well that you may even think yourself capable of transcribing them!

 

 

There are also a number of resources you can use to improve your understanding of Pijin (and your speaking of Pijin if you choose to “shadow” [repeat after the narrator bit-by-bit]). A lot of religious material for Christians has been published (and you know that “The Jesus Film”, which has been dubbed into over 1,000 languages [not a typo!] is probably going to get an article on this blog one of these days). While I am not Christian myself, I find this material helpful for understanding not only the processes of missionaries (then as well as now) but also concerning how Christianity is perceived and practiced in places like the Solomon Islands.

And another song just because I feel like it:

Another slice of videos you can watch include informational videos about diseases, economic development, science (especially environmental science) and more! Many of these are localized into Solomon Islands Pijin by organizations from Australia and beyond!

I bet “watch Claymation films in Solomon Islands Pijin” was probably not on your to-do list for today, but here this is anyhow:

Yes, there is radio and you can learn a lot about the many cultures of the Solomon Islands by listening to it, but be aware of the fact that, especially in Honiara (the capital) a lot of English is interspersed between Pijin, so you’ll get an “on-off” feeling at times. But even when Solomon Islanders speak English, you’ll be able to hone your pronunciation and may even learn how to speak English the way they do in Solomon!

A lot of ads and other programming are also available and Pijin and you’ll sometimes listen to them quite frequently on the radio! I’ve also heard fantastic things about Pijin-language storytelling (a true art in the Solomon Islands and in all of Melanesia in general), but I’ve had trouble finding links to Pijin stories so if you know of any, let me know!

Lastly, you can actually help! Pijin Wikipedia may happen if you contribute a handful of articles! Have a look at the progress here! (I think if a Wikipedia incubator reaches 50 articles, it gets launched! Maybe I should just write the remaining ones and get it over with as a “birthday present” to the country. Or maybe I have too many other classes to teach today…)

https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/pis

Anyhow, after listening to all of the songs, watching the films, and having a good dosage of written Pijin, perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that I learned this language well enough to speak it convincingly within two weeks…or does it?

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

solomon

 

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!