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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Trussel.com

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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The State of Being Able to Learn the Nauruan Language in 2019

Happy 51st Birthday Nauru!

Today I’m going to speak about my experience with (trying to) learn Nauruan, which collapsed several times due to no fault of my own.

First off, the Nauruan language does have significant boons that some smaller languages don’t have.

There’s Nauruan Wikipedia you can visit at https://na.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bwiema_peij

There’s a predictive Nauruan-language keyboard available with SwiftKey (I can’t say how good the predictions are, but it seems to be better than the Greenlandic one).

Music is readily available on YouTube and it seems that even the most translated website in existence (I am speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Organizational Page, translated into 700+ languages) has a good deal of text and even audio. While a lot of material from JW does end up in Glosbe’s translation database, this hasn’t been the case with Nauruan as of the time of writing.

There isn’t a single book for learning the Nauruan language that is user-friendly. There is a German-Language Grammar that I wrote about earlier this month. It’s about as user-friendly as it gets: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

It is from before World War I and it seems that the orthography is quite different from what you can find on the aforementioned Nauruan Wikipedia. (Reminder to those unaware: Nauruan was once a German colony).

The advantages to this book: the grammar is clearly laid out, there are even texts for learning and a helpful dictionary. The one disadvantage is that it is probably not going to prepare you to have your first conversation. Take phrasebooks from Lonely Planet, Berlitz or Reise Know How / Kauderwelsch. Those TRAIN you to learn things that are instantly useful within a matter of minutes. This book isn’t like that.

Then we get to Stephen Trussel’s website. His work with Kiribati / Gilbertese has not only been fantastic but actually made my studies of that enchanting language POSSIBLE (I can’t thank him enough for what he has done). Concerning Nauruan, he did put a dictionary online that I in turn converted into a Memrise course (along with some other sources).

I decided to put it online and you can access it here. It probably won’t make you fluent or make you even conversational but it may be useful: https://www.memrise.com/course/1794555/nauruan/

There are some other grammars and courses that I’ve seen referenced in scholarship, but I cannot acquire copies of any of them. Part of me was hoping to get an accessible Nauruan language learning textbook when I visited the University of the South Pacific. They didn’t have anything in the way of Nauruan language materials when I went in August 2018 (as far as I could see), but they did have Cook Islands Maori / Rarotongan and Tuvaluan stuff (again, that trip made my TUVALUAN studies possible!).

Here’s what I think needs to be done in order to make the Nauruan Language accessible. I think that there are a lot of people who will appreciate being able to learn “the language of the world’s smallest independent republic”.

  • I would like to translate that Nauruan Grammar book and hopefully publish it but I don’t know how to go about doing it and / or updating the orthography.
  • A “Hacking Nauruan Course” should be made accessible. A native speaker could throw it together in an afternoon. It should have pronouns, “to have”, “to want”, conjunctions, question words, a pronunciation guide and a sentence structure guide. It could be on Memrise, Anki, or even on a free blog. A YouTube tutorial would also be fantastic.
  • Some variety of phrasebook, even a free one, should be made available. I think the Lonely Planet Fijian guide was very well put together and I think something in a similar structure would make Nauruan less intimidating. In it should be phrases related to lodging, restaurants and other everyday topics.

 

Perhaps some may think, “well, why bother with a language with so few native speakers?”

Well, I think that in the age of great language death, a lot of people are caring a lot more than they used to. And perhaps it may inspire someone to visit the country or otherwise spread knowledge about this tiny island that others in the world deserve to know about.

Naoero eko dogin! (Nauru Forever!)

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Kiribati / Gilbertese: The Easy, the Hard and the Future (January 2018)

More than three weeks into 2018 and I’ve found my Gilbertese drastically improved. That said, with the 31 Days of Language challenge today’s task is to reflect on what makes your language challenging.

Kiribati

But first, that wouldn’t be very helpful without recognizing what make Kiribati EASIER than many other languages.

For one, the pronunciation is straightforward with the primary difficulty at first being the pronunciation of the “ti” combination, pronounced as “si” (or “s” at the end of word). Hence “Kiribati” is not pronounced “kee-ruh-baa-tee” but rather “kee-ruh-baas” (have the “aa” on the side of a short-a sound to sound more authentic).

The verbs are also significantly simpler than those of the majority of languages I have learned throughout my life. In no instance in Kiribati does a verb change depending on the seubject. I roko – I came. E roko – he came.

Granted, there are some more complications that become relevant at the intermediate level (where I’m now at) so expect this video of mine to explain almost everything:

The fact that I’ve been able to see similarities throughout other languages I know is also helpful. In Breton, as in Kiribati, you also put the adjective before the noun (English can also use this pattern as well, hence “strong are the ties that bind friends like us” — note that “strong” goes before “ties”)

The absence of a verb “to have” is also not striking, given that I’ve seen this with Finno-Ugric Languages and with Hebrew.

From the video above we have:

iai am boki? – is there your book? (=do you have a book?)

OR

iai te boki iroum – is there the book with you? (=do you have a book?)

Now let’s get to the harder stuff:

Listening comprehension outside of songs has been difficult. Often I hear a big blur of words with a lot of slurring and then I think “HAWWGGH!??!”. Luckily, much like I had this problem with Danish, I think that songs will serve as a segway into the spoken language (which was how I solved the problem with Danish in 2013/2014).

I don’t feel as though my accent has the right texture quite yet. And this is something I’m going to need to really think about and apply to my existing languages as well as ones that I’m still at the beginner or intermediate stage for. Just because you can pronounce each individual vowel correctly or passably doesn’t mean you have a fluent accent. The missing piece is still something I’m working on.

I feel as though I speak slowly and like a learner. That’s obviously not the worst thing, given that Kiribati is one of the faster languages I’ve heard spoken. (For warmer climates, Lao was the most forgiving in terms of its tempo although Kiribati and some forms of Tok Pisin were the ABSOLUTE WORST).

I feel that there’s a lot of grammar I still have yet to apply and cover. This does have a lot to do with the placement of commonly used small words. I remember having this similar struggle in Swedish as well. The fact that Kiribati has a lot of the aspects that would make a language “easy” on paper doesn’t necessarily translate it to being easy in practice, and the lack of resources makes it even harder.

Right now, I have a solid basis in Kiribati. I just need to assemble the interior pieces of the language puzzle until I get something that I’m proud of.

And about listening comprehension, maybe I just need to get exposure to it until it sinks in. Obviously I’ve been getting a lot of musical exposure, but the spoken language is a lot more merciless in its speed and its scope.

I remember having this struggle with Hungarian and Finnish as well. What I usually did do was that I did apply audio, and tried to see how many words I could recognize. From then, it became an issue of using my applied knowledge to fill in the gaps until I understood 80% (I’m not there with Hungarian or Kiribati quite yet…but I’m on my way!)

Some concrete steps I can take in order to patch any weaknesses:

(1) Recording myself more often
(2) TRANSLATING YouTube comments in Kiribati (YES, they exist)
(3) Applying audio (NOT songs) so that it’s not scary and avoiding that temptation to CLICK AWAY.

This is just the beginning of something sweet that will only continue to grow!

Why I Learn Kiribati / Gilbertese, and Why I Think Other People Should, Too

Day 5 of 2018 and it seems that my goals are coming into place. Already my Hungarian and Gilbertese have been making fantastic progress, in both grammar and vocabulary.

Today’s task for Mango Language’s 31 Days of Language (for which I chose Gilbertese, despite the fact that it isn’t yet available on Mango Languages) is to relate what place your language is spoken in and what it is known for:

Kiribati is the only country that has no overseas territories that is located in all four hemispheres (in the Pacific Ocean) and is the first country to “see” the near year on any given year.

Kiribati

What’s more, it is also known (by virtually ANYONE who knows about the islands at all) that they are at EXTREME risk concerning climate change and rising sea levels, with the under 30 generation projected to be the last generation to live on the islands before relocation (if current trends continue).

The videos that I’ve seen of rural Kiribati are very, VERY much unlike Brooklyn, often more closely resembling structures (and sometimes clothing) of bygone eras (or what most Americans would consider to be bygone eras. Sadly, in some Native American reservations there are even worse conditions).

No wonder I am the ONLY person I’ve not only met in person but met online who has even tried to learn the language. The one thing that people associate with Kiribati is something most people don’t want to think about. And in the West, there’s that guilt present knowing that decisions favoring petroleum (more relevant to North America, of course) have led to the wholescale destruction of HUMAN habitats and, unless we do something, it may lead to the destruction of entire countries. Indeed, in some respects, that destruction is already here.

No language has broken my heart as harshly as Gilbertese has. Despite the fact that there are music channels that show that there is a vibrant human culture that even people who have never heard of Kiribati can relate to, I have to live with the reality that the people here feel as though their country has spit them out (or is on the verge of doing so). Reading Lamentations on the evening of Tisha B’av, I told my rabbi on the night afterwards that a lot of the thought processes present in the Book of Lamentations were ALSO present among the many I-Kiribati being interviewed about their “dying country”.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, there are stories of resilience and hope, not to mention many personalities that make me realize how strong the human spirit really is (I am reminded at this juncture that, on the other side of the planet, Nanook, one of Greenland’s most famous musical acts [who I had the privilege to MEET last year!] began one of their best-selling albums with singing the words “I recognize that Greenlandic people possess great strength”).

For me, learning Kiribati was a moral imperative and was for a long time. It’s a pity that only in mid-2017 I began to take is seriously and it is now tied for my favorite language (along with Greenlandic).

There are a number of reasons for this:

For one, late-stage capitalism has successful distanced ourselves from our deepest human urges. We humans are cooperators by nature, more so than competitors. We care for ourselves, our lands and our planet. Capitalism unfettered serves to undermine every single one of these aspects.

But in places like Kiribati, Greenland, and many other places in (what is mostly) the developing world, the old spirit is very much still alive. Even among American Jews I find that people who are not very religious are turning to some form of religious study because it contains many aspects of wisdom that our nomadic ancestors had but our grocery-store, smartphone-addicted globalized selves do not.

By living in this country, I realize that I have, whether I like it or not, participated in a system that has crushed and destroyed many other places throughout the world for the shallow name of profit. Kiribati, while still alive thankfully and also not at war, is one of these affected places. To most Americans, I-Kiribati might describe themselves as being “from a tropical island”. But to me, I have learned more about their culture than most HUMANS ever will.

Maybe if I could relate the sort of things I see about Kiribati online, which will only continue to grow with my Kiribati getting stronger, then I could also help my friends with realizing the issues of climate disruption more deeply than they had, even if they have no desire to learn any other languages (and that’s okay).

Scientific articles show a technical side to climate change but in reading about Kiribati I learn about it in a whole other way, one that may sadly continue to be relevant for us: how it impacts humans who have had their world thrown into turmoil because of rising sea levels.

But despite all of this, I think, just like everywhere else, I-Kiribati want other people to view their country as “a normal country” (a desire I’ve heard, for example, among Israelis and citizens of the former Yugoslav republics). Kiribati is sinking but there’s more to the Kiribati story than sinking. Having both been on the American and Japanese colonial frontier, it has impacted the popular culture of both more than you realize (the Maneaba, the traditional meeting house in a Kiribati village, may look familiar to you):

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This picture is from trussel.com, without which I wouldn’t be able to learn this language.

Nowadays I’ve only met a handful of people who know where (or what) Kiribati is, but unless we as a species do something very quickly, everyone may know what this country is…when it is on the verge of no longer existing. If that is the case, you may think back to these posts and realize that I have, sadly, been validated with my choice.

With my choice of languages I can make statements. I can use them in order to bring bits of the world to my companions, my blog and everyone around me. This is one area of the world that people need to know a lot about. Most definitely now.