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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Here’s how I recommend you use the material:

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And entire YouTube channels are devoted to it.

 

KiriMusik:

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

MusicTuvalu:

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

MusicofSamoa (WITH KARAOKE TRACKS):

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

 

You get the idea.

 

Use it.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

  • Learning Languages of Oceania can be heartbreaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendered by the English translation as:

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

But try looking at it this way:

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

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

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

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

Rendered literally:

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

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

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

Various opportunities that Tok Pisin provide include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Anchor Your Languages to Your “Mentors” So as to Avoid Mixing Them Up

A friend of mine, an English / German / Spanish / Japanese / possibly other languages I forgot / possibly I taught him a few words of Hebrew once asked me to write this post. Thank you, Mitch, with great wishes for your continued success!

Do YOU have a topic you’d like me to write on? Let me know!

I’m recovering from an illness so I hope that this will be good nonetheless.

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Many people have told me that they sometimes intend to say one thing in one language and end up saying something in another, or otherwise the general mix-up that many polyglots, even veterans, know all too well.

Believe me, even native speakers sometimes suffer from this. This is why code-switching is a thing, as well as the fact that many people from India / Oceania / Israel / Northern Europe / American Hispanics mix in English with their native languages. Even in the Arab world this is common with French words instead (in various Arabic varieties spoken in former French colonies, such as with Lebanese Arabic).

That said, there are some people who feel as though they have an “unhealthy dosage” of it, to the degree in which they want to speak Hebrew or Japanese and then Spanish comes out instead, not also to mention those who study similar languages may also suffer from this as well.

Here comes the solution:

Among “dialect continuum” areas (in which the boundaries between languages are unclear and there is a large amount of variance between a language as spoken in a particular country or geographical area), as well as areas of the Internet dedicated to the culture of these areas, you’ll notice something: some people flaunt their national flags with what could almost be described as aggression.

There’s a reason that Norwegian flags are commonly featured on clothing (especially coats and winterwear), and that’s to distinguish their wearers from Swedish or Danish people (the former of whose language closely resembles spoken Norwegian and the latter of which closely resembles the written variety).

In Crown Heights, which I believe is the largest Afro-Caribbean expatriate community in the world, I see Jamaican, Trinidadian, Grenadian and Barbadian flags (among others) VERY commonly. The reason why? So that people don’t mistake them for one from belonging to one of the other nations (despite the fact that many of them share many aspects of culture).

Listening to music from Melanesia, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Vanuatu tends to show the Ni-Vanuatu Flag in the thumbnail and Solomon Islands music does the same. Bislama and Pijin (their national creoles) resemble each other very closely.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here?

The same way that these people anchor their native identity with imagery and mementos, YOU need to be doing that with the languages you speak as well.

The first time, which is the easiest one, is find “mentors” for each of your languages. No, I’m not saying “go find a private tutor for each one”, but rather a certain native speaker or a set of native speakers whose voice you tend to imitate most. These could be friends, radio hosts, YouTubers, or even voices from an online app.

Here are some of the “mentors” I’ve had:

  • The Irish Language Transparent Language Voice
  • My Welsh-Speaking Friend named Ivan
  • The Vincentian Creole Bible-Redux Narrator (from a set of mp3’s I got from a Bible site that one time. Yes, a lot of them mention Jesus; no, I am not Christian nor do I have any intention of being un-Jewish).
  • A number of Swedish-Language Let’s Play-ers who deserve an entire post written about them (coming soon! And no, PewDiePie is not one of them. I’m glad that he’s brought awareness about the Swedish language and culture to many fields of popular discussion but he crossed the line too many times last year. Also, he uses a lot more English than Swedish in his videos.)
  • Too many of my Yiddish-speaking friends to count, but if I had to pick one it would be Baruch, probably the one I spend the most time with (we attend a lot of the same events).

For your native language, you sort of don’t have any choice for your mentors—they were your parents or guardians. But for languages you learn in adulthood you’ll need to find “adoptive parents” for them.

Obviously if you have a LOT of friends who speak the language (as is the case with languages like Yiddish and Polish for me), your “mentor” will be sort of a blend of all of them although mostly the influence of one or two will overshadow all of them.

I couldn’t imagine Baruch speaking Vincentian Creole English (although maybe one day he’ll learn it, I have no idea). Similarly, I can’ t really imagine the “Vincy” narrator speaking Yiddish or even standard English for that matter (although the latter I would imagine he certainly would know).

Another thing that you very much can do is have different vowel and consonant textures for your languages. Once you get a mentor for any language and start imitating him or her, this will come naturally. Think about the automated voices in your language course—how do they pronounce “a” or “l” differently from the way you do in your native language? Investigate these feelings in detail and mimic them accordingly.

People who are often praised for their accent often do exactly this, and note the differences as to what they hear between speakers of various languages. Once you get good at it, you’ll even be able to keep extremely close languages separate. While I encounter with dogged consistency people who mix up Spanish and Portuguese way too often (precisely because they haven’t gone through this), I can keep straight German and Yiddish, the Scandinavian Languages, and very similar Creole languages—granted there are rare occasions in which I mix them up, but overall I’m in a good place because my “mental discipline” is very honed.

We all have separate identities. Jared the teacher is very flamboyant but he has to tone it down when he’s Jared the student. Similarly, you’ll have to do the same with your languages—allot each one a different set of feelings and a role, as well as, most importantly, ways of talking.

Happy learning!

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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How Do You Self-Evaluate Your Language Learning?

How do you know what level you’re at in a language you’re learning or that you speak?

Yes, you could take tests, but what if the language you’re speaking is from a developing country or has no standard written form? What then?

For one, in the United States I evaluate myself readily and I call myself fluent if I can do the following things:

  • Speak about my life with ease without awkward pauses for fifteen minutes or longer
  • Understand a good mixture of songs, radio broadcasts, TV shows and YouTube without issue
  • Can sight-read articles with relative ease
  • Have a convincing accent to MOST people. (Some Israelis think I sound like a “Sabra” but not all)
  • Have cultural resonance in some capacity.

Interestingly the most important component is the 5th one. Allow me to explain what it is: my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish (Hungarian + Russian Empire) and Swedish / American blend (the American side having largely Irish / German / English / Scottish). I have connections to languages like Hebrew, Swedish and Yiddish because of my heritage.

But something inside me is also amused by Vanuatu and, despite the fact that I have no ancestry from there and have had no family members that travelled there, I see Ni-Vanuatu culture as something that calls to me, for some odd reason. Because of that, I listen to Bislama-language radio very often as well as Ni-Vanuatu music (which often features guest stars from Vanuatu’s cultural siblings, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

Anyhow, another thing I do is I also attend language events. This is in order to evaluate my progress as consistently good as well as detect any issues that my vocabulary may have. Granted this tends to serve the most popular languages like Spanish the most often but every now and then I get chances to use languages like Yiddish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Burmese. If I leave thinking that I may need to work on something related to grammar, general flow or word choice, then I’ll have to work on it.

Another thing I do is, on weekends or on days in which I have completely free, I will set aside four to six hours to rehearse each language, usually through hearing (because what you hear translates to your speaking style in any language. Keep in mind that active listening is NOT an absolute substitute for actually speaking. If you’re learning a rarer language and have no access to native speakers, you NEED to use your MOUTH! Even by yourself or with recording software!)

Right now I’m noticing that I’m focusing more on my fluent languages than newer ones for a number of reasons. Part of me is considering putting huge swathes of my beginner languages on the cutting block right now, actually.

If I understand absolutely everything (as is the case, for example, with languages like Bislama and Danish) then I will mark them down as “very good”. If I have some kinks in understanding them (as is the case with languages like something like Burmese or Polish) then I’ll focus more on them when I’m using Anki in the subway system during my commute (or when choosing which music I have to listen to when walking or in a crowded subway car). If I understand very little (which I realize for a language like Kiribati where I’m almost at the intermediate plateau with) then I will mark it down with an emphatic “NEEDS WORK”. I’ll write up a memo as to where my weaknesses are and determine a solution catered to it specifically.

Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. I’m fluent in Bislama but that doesn’t mean that I can neglect it for years on end and expect to be dropped in rural Vanuatu and expect to be speaking Bislama perfectly. I used to be good at Russian but I neglected it during my time in Poland and after several years I could barely answer any basic questions. I’m still not that good at it anymore.

I’m willing to move languages both up and down on my fluency ladder. What is C2 on my website is being able to understand virtually EVERYTHING and speak without floundering when I’m at my best.

Keep in mind that if I’m in a debilitating situation (jetlagged, starved) then it’s not going to be a reflection of my truest capabilities. That’s another thing to keep in mind because sometimes I dwell on “messing up” at events like Mundo Lingo, or I get vexed when I hear ignorant comments about my languages or my language choice (as, sadly, happens often there. I’m seriously starting to re-evaluate if people who speak multiple languages really ARE more open-minded. No doubt language hobbyists are, however).

Anyhow, the most important thing to realize is that every language you learn throughout your life is a process.  There is always something new to discover and you have to savor every step of the journey, even if you falter.

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DETERMINATION.

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:

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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!

In My Opinion, These Five Countries Have the Best Contemporary Music (November 2017)

 

I’ve tasted music from well over FIFTY different countries and at least that many languages

I’m sorry to say but, after having tasted music in a lot of the rest of the world, it seems to me that contemporary American music more often than not seems uninspired, shallow and formulaic. Granted, other places do have their share of bad music as well, but ever since college I’ve been looking abroad for musical hits and I’ve never, EVER looked back.

As of late 2017, here are the countries whose music of contemporary times (1980’s to the present) have left me significantly impressed and have changed my life. I also judge primarily for lyrical content as well as for how often I find myself humming or thinking about these tunes when I’m away from any music player or while walking in a field or down the street.

Here we go!

 

  1. Finland

 

One month from today this fascinating country will celebrate its 100th birthday!

It seemed to me in 2013 that I would just learn enough Finnish to “get by” during my venture to meet the local Jewish community in Helsinki and I would promptly forget it. Fate had other plans…

After having discovered a website that offered Finnish Language music 24/7 shortly after my trip, I got hooked. Finnish remains one of my favorite European languages and many of the song lyrics and tunes have been a potent look into what Finnishness (“Suomalaisuus”) entails.

That website, by the way still exists, and it comes with complete song ID’s for everything that plays during a 24-hour period. Check it out, it may prove fun even if you don’t speak or understand any Finnish at all: http://www.radiosuomipop.fi/

 

  1. Solomon Islands

 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe some of you have visibly said “WHAT?!!?” out loud, but Solomon Music is unbelievably refreshing and heartfelt. What’s more, a lot of the music does tend to mix together standard English, Pijin and many of the local languages of the Solomons.

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

 

 

By the way, I asked Dezine how their name was pronounced and they said it was pronounced “de-ZYN” (my understanding is that it’s a homophone with the English word “design”). Yes, I’m FB Messenger contacts with one of the best known musical acts in a country on the other side of the globe. Long story.

 

  1. Myanmar / Burma

 

I still distinctly remember the withdrawal I suffered when I went back from Yangon to New York City and the music I hear from boom boxes and smartphones was noticeably different and not in a good way. Even in very poor regions of the countryside (in Bagan I noticed that this was particularly common), I heard farmers using their smartphones to play music that seemed as though it was vaguely inspired by Chinese pop ballads and classical British radio hits.

Did I tell you about the time I found 100+ Burmese-language songs for $10 on the iTunes store?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/greatest-hits/id1222130595

There are totally no American, Russian or Chinese cover songs anywhere in that album. Nu uh. No way. [/s]

I also hear that many aspects of the punk music scene in Myanmar have been essential in ensuring inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, especially important given current events throughout the world but especially in Myanmar.

 

  1. Iceland

You can’t have a landscape like that and not have it inspire you on a very primal level. Sometimes I listen to bland music in grocery stores and at parties and then I listen to the likes of  Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró and I am thereby reminded that there is plenty of originality left in contemporary music, more than many people may give it credit for.

I think that every American alive will probably recognize this tune from somewhere:

And my love of Icelandic rap is literally no secret to anyone who knows me at all. Did I mention I got to see Emmsjé Gauti in concert the day before the Polyglot Conference? Be forewarned: he does demand a lot of audience participation in his events! (He even had an 8-year old boy from the audience join him on stage and sing the chorus to one of his songs!)

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Papua New Guinea

I played a family member some songs from Daniel Bilip the “nambawan hitmaker bilong PNG”. I have a distinct memory of nearly having the phone and the earphones yanked out of my hands when I tried to take it back (the music was THAT addicting!)

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trini Carnival music is adrenalin in mp3 form. And that’s a very good thing for me. Also, in case you can’t tell, Trinidadian Creole is heavily utilized in these songs, in ways elude the understanding of the average English speaker.

 

 

Israel

At the Hebrew University in the Ulpan I have memories of doing “group singing”. They are very good memories, but the songs are plenty times more memorable.

 

 And now for the coveted no. 1 spot…(that is no surprise in the slighest to anyone who knows me…)

 

  1. GREENLAND

 

Thousands of songs throughout my life, dozens of CD’s, and the most moving music in my life has almost consistently come from one place.

 

 

Greenlandic music tends to contain poetry and musical elements that capture the magnificent feeling of the great beyond in ways that other places’ music just CAN’T.

Ever since I began studying Greenlandic in 2013 (and despite my meager progress), I listened to Greenlandic music and couldn’t get enough. A lot of the styles encapsulate the essence of the many feelings of the human experience.

Some songs have been so beautiful that when I’m listening to them on the subway staying composed is a difficult task.

My personal favorites include Nanook, Rasmus Lyberth and Marc Fussing Rosbach (who just so happens to be the author of a lot of the music for my upcoming video game). I had the chance to meet both Nanook and Marc during my Greenland trip in October (and narrowly missed Rasmus!)

And even if pop ballads and game music isn’t your thing, Siissisoq (“The Rhinoceros”) has come out with literally the best heavy metal I’ve ever heard in my life, and in recent memory they got back together after what was nearly a two-decade hiatus. (I do NOT attribute this to the fact that I wrote a fan letter to the lead singer shortly before hearing this news!)

I’ve written about Greenlandic music in detail elsewhere on this blog, have a read about it here and expect your life to be changed completely.

 

 

The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

2015-03-17 20.17.12

Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)