Learning Languages from Oceania: A Guide on How to Start

I would like to thank my friend Teddy Nee over at http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/ for having suggested this topic! Check out his webpage!

 

So maybe you saw that Fijian book at a store and you’re curious to learn more about the language. Maybe you found a guide to French Polynesia at your local library. Perhaps you ran into a Samoan at your friend’s party. Or you encountered Tongan women at the airport with unforgettable, colorful outfits.

Oceania is sadly a bit of a blind spot in terms of not only world politics but also the language-learning sphere in general. A lot of people don’t even give it a first glance. Perhaps it is because they think that native speakers will be hard to come by or that time would be better spent with other languages.

The fact is, any of these obstacles can be overcome and learning languages from the South Pacific (I’ll be focusing on Oceania and Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia in particular) is VERY rewarding indeed.

 

Why Learn Languages from Oceania?

 

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In Fiji there was a stark contrast to a lot of patterns I saw throughout Europe and Asia. Namely, the fact that my use of Fijian was HEAVILY encouraged on an hourly basis by native speakers. I even joked that “the janitors in Fiji were more useful and encouraging language tutors than academics in Iceland.”

(Maybe it isn’t the whole picture, but the fact is that given how quickly the world seems to be craving even MORE English, cultures throughout the world should be proud of their languages and cultures in a healthy way and be willing to encourage other people to study them as much as possible, rather than trying to force English on others as non-natives).

Palauans, Samoans and I-Kiribati were just as equally helpful for me. (Full disclosure: my Samoan is very, very weak).

In a sense, your ability to cast magic spells on people from these island nations will give you worlds upon worlds of bridges. And legendary hospitality and kindness is a cultural mainstay of many (if not all) of these countries.

On top of that, Oceania has a stronger influence on “mainstream pop culture” than meets the eye. The release of Moana / Vaiana and of Pokémon Sun and Moon (set in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region complete with Hawaiian place names and cultural references EVERYWHERE) further served to market cultures of the Pacific well outside their borders.

Even then, images of Kiribati, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and dozens of others would be recognizable to many Americans who may have not even thought too much of these places beyond “wow I’ve heard they’re beautiful islands”.

And I didn’t even touch on Maori culture still being a force of great influence well beyond Oceania.

 

Where to Start

If you want a good glimpse at a number of languages throughout Polynesia, the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook is a good introduction. Sadly it may not help you learn how to form your own sentences in every one of the languages, but it is a nice introduction to many of the locales of the South Pacific. What’s more, the sections are interspersed with local legends and cultural tips that help bring the places to life.

The book covers Fijian, Hawaiian, Kanak Languages (of New Caledonia) with a focus on Drehu,  New Zealand Maori, Niuean, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island and the island’s non-colonial name), Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan), Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan and tidbits of Fiji Hindi, French, Spanish and Norfuk / Pitkern.

Books for further reading are also located at the back of the book.

Now let’s go throughout the continent and see what we can find:

Fijian: Lonely Planet and Reise Know How both have phrasebooks of good quality, uTalk also has a course as well (very good for honing pronunciation). Not only that, but Cornell University hosts a free version of Ronald Gatty’s Fijian dictionary that covers any idiom, phrase and word that he could get his hands on. There are also good Fijian Memrise courses as well. And the Live Lingua Project has PDF’s for learners. You’re in good shape with this one.

Tongan: A fantastic Anki Deck I found from 2017 was taken off the server but I still have it and I can send it to you if you’d like it. A lot of Tongan materials are geared towards missionaries (as is the case for many languages of Oceania). Check out this PDF as well. Audio is also available on YouTube (alongside many other useful learning channels for Tongan made by enthusiastic native speakers): https://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/audio/languagelessons/tonga/TN_Tonga_Language_Lessons.pdf

Samoan: Two sources I can recommend. uTalk’s course and the Live Lingua Project. Both come with native speaker audio.

Maori: Reise Know How has a German-Language phrasebook for Maori. uTalk also has Maori as well (I think we’ve gone through all the uTalk courses for Oceania that I can think of right now, they only have Fijian, Samoan and Maori as of the time of writing). Quality materials in my experience are not scarce, thankfully.

Hawaiian: Fantastic Memrise Courses as well as Mango Languages’ Course should be a good introduction.

Cook Islands Maori: This is a hard one. So far not a lot of comprehensive user-friendly books exist, but a TON of sample sentences and words can be found at: http://cookislandsdictionary.com/ And don’t forget an introductory course at: http://cookislandslanguage.com/

Tahitian: Material from French is easy to come by, for English speakers D.T. Tryon’s book on “Conversational Tahitian” is FANTASTIC.

Marquesan Languages: You can buy a very thorough phrasebook for Marquesan from http://www.emilydonaldson.org/  (Look for the contact information and e-mail her asking about the phrasebook).

Rapa Nui: Good dictionaries can be found on the web. Concerning learning materials, omniglot.com has a good lineup (as it does for almost any language).

Niuean: http://www.learnniue.co.nz/ is a good bet, once you have the basics, see if you can find Tregear and Smith’s 1907 book with a very thorough dictionary and grammar points.

Drehu: I haven’t even studied this language on a surface level, but if you have anything to say about it…

Tok Pisin, Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin: The Lonely Planet Guide for Pidgin is EXCELLENT in getting you to start. For added supplements, consider the Live Lingua Project’s PDF’s for these languages. Memrise also has good courses for Tok Pisin and Bislama in particular. Sadly concerning Torres Strait Creole and Kriol (of the Australian Aborigines), it seems as though the landscape isn’t as favorable. Right now. But maybe new materials will come up.

Hiri Motu: Try this one: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/146613/1/PL-D24.pdf Or this one: https://exkiap.net/other/tok_pisin/Say_It_In_Motu.pdf

Palauan:  You need one website: http://tekinged.com/. This is the language website all others should aspire to be.

Marshallese: The Live Lingua Peace Corp Manual is a bit basic, but for more thorough studies look for Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese”, which will probably make you a master when you’re done with it. Provided you use audio well (and you’ll probably have to find them independently of those materials).

Nauruan: Oh my. I’m probably going to have to write about this next week. The landscape doesn’t look too clear at this point, I’ll say that. I did find a German-Language grammar book from 1913, I have a printed copy of it right here. You can get the PDF version from some universities from this link or just look at it online if you don’t have that: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

Next week is Nauru’s Independence Day and I’ll write a whole post on this topic.

Kiribati: http://trussel.com/ This website is VERY, VERY GOOD.

Tuvaluan: Geoffrey Jackson’s books are of very good quality. Sadly they exist in Google books only in pieces due to copyright restrictions. His Tuvaluan-English / English-Tuvaluan Dictionary is FANTASTIC and can be acquired from the University of the South Pacific in Suva. (Do they do mail-order stuff? I don’t even know. I got it when I went there in person). For those who like dense grammar, there is: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

Languages of the Federated States of Micronesia: A toughie. Basic Chuukese guides exist online, but for any of the others I’d recommend searching in https://www.twirpx.com/

Fiji Hindi: Live Lingua Project (look under “Fijian”).

Rotuman: http://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/LanguageLessons/lessons.htm And another site that seems to be dysfunctional at the moment. Also look for the “Rotuman Word List” in Google.

 

IF YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THIS LIST, write it in the comments belong.

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Other general tools to use include Glosbe (which has a HUGE translation memory in many of these languages) as well as SwiftKey Keyboard (which includes predictive text for SmartPhones in many of these languages as well).

 

Okay, Now I have the Materials, What Do I Do with Them?

I recommend a number of methods:

  • Writing sentences, then reading them out loud, and then recording them.
  • The 30-Day Speaking Challenge (see “Other Foreign Language Blogs” above and click on “Jonathan Huggins”) can be a good place to start.
  • Clozemaster Pro’s customization features. For this, pick a language that has the “Cloze-Collections” feature enabled. Then create a new collection, name it, and select the second option that indicates that, instead of using random words from the language, use random words from other answers (this will ensure that you don’t get one Yapese answer and three Hungarian words as the multiple-choice test selections). Insert the sentences from your book at your own volition. Now you have a custom course! If you use only sentences from the public domain, you can also SHARE it with others!
  • Social media posts. Need I say more?

And now what you’ve all be waiting for…

How to Find Native Speakers of Oceanic Languages

Paul Barbato of Geography Now said that the hardest nationalities for him to come into contact with were the Nauruans and the Tuvaluans. I don’t blame him.

There IS one way to do it and it surprisingly works but you’d have to get fairly … decent … at your target language first.

And that’s to make videos of yourself learning / using the language. With the name of the language and the title. And wait. (As of the time of writing, two Rotumans met each other in the comments section! Rotuma has a 2,000 inhabitants but significantly more outside of Rotuma, mostly in Fiji and Australia.).

You could also post it to various sub-reddits as well, but be careful. Don’t promote yourself too often otherwise you  may get locked out (this never happened to me). And contribute meaningfully to said sub-reddits as well.

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This is very much something like the post I wish I had read to “have all of my resources in one place” before choosing to study Oceanic Languages. Feel free to provide any variety of feedback or contribute any relevant projects you’re working on.

Onward!

Tahitian: My First Polynesian Language, My First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Tahiti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  • The Pronunciation is Very Easy

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Moana”

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

 

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

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

Vaiana is Tahitian as well, “water cave”

 

  • Can’t Wait to Learn More!

 

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