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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iso an Jekob

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

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

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

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

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

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

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

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

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

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Yes, indeed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

And another song just because I feel like it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

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