In the Peace Corps - Micronesia we had about four weeks of language training and then we got on boats and were dropped off on our islands. Here was mine: Fananu
. Population: 355. 0.8 square kilometers. No cars, no electricity, lots of coconuts.
Peace Corps taught us how to speak in the main dialect in the district center, but Chuukic languages exist on a continuum. Upwe le feila
is "I will go." But on my island it was shortened to upwe la
. On another, upwe le la
. On another, it was just upwe
. There were lots of sound shift. Chuuk was "shuuk" in the south, "chuuk" on the main island, and "rhuuk" in the north where I was. We learned Chuukese. And I was sent to an island that spoke Pááfang. They were closely related, but they weren't the same.
The only book in the local language was the Bible, which 1) didn't interest me, 2) was written in a very formal register that wasn't used for speaking, and 3) was written in a very different dialect than what they spoke on my island.
I don't know if I could tell a cohesive story, but I can share some random thoughts about the experience:
- This is very, very hard way to learn a language. I'm not even sure it's the most effective - it is infinitely faster to learn with immersion + formal language books.
- Social isolation, on the other hand, is an amazing motivator. I had two choices: stay silent for two years, or learn to speak.
- I never learned the grammar, and have no idea how it works. I don't even now why I would add certain sounds in a sentence, only that it sounded right. And this was often the best explanation I got from the locals, too. I'd ask, what does this mean? And they'd respond: you just say it to make your words sound better.
- This is most definitely not how a child learns!!! Children get a couple years of baby talk. To me, the idea that adults can learn the way children learn is one of the worst myths of language learning. Nobody spent two years with me saying: mama. say mama. mama. say dada. who's a happy baby? you're a happy baby!
- The most important thing I learned early on was how to conjugate "to go." Upwe
. I go. Kopwe
. You go. Sipwe
. We go / let's go, inclusive. Aupwe
. We go, exclusive. As in: everyone else is going, but not me. The guys would tell me: sipwe la fituuk
. And I'd think, ok, we're going to go fituuk. Whatever fituuk means. And everyone would grab their spearfishing gear, and I'd think: ok, fituuk means spearfishing.
- Learning the different social registers was much easier than I anticipated. There was one way we'd talk when it was only the guys, and another way we'd talk in mixed company, and another when talking to the chiefs. there was the "language of love" that was only used for seduction and in songs. There was itang, the secret language of magic, which used common words but in which each had a hidden meaning. It wasn't that hard to internalize the different registers. It came naturally. This is something I struggle with when learning languages from books.
- One of the main benefits of learning this way was that I learned how to learn. I know that can be a bit of a cliche, but it's true. I stumbled my way through Latin in high school, and actually failed French in college. After this experience, I had a much better grasp of what I needed to do to learn, and a much better understanding of what was important, and what wasn't.
I just took a look at some online resources for my dialect, Pááfang. I see that UNESCO lists it as critically endangered, and that "the only remaining active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation and older. " This is fundamentally not true. Granted, there are only about 1000 speakers of the dialect on the four islands in the atoll - but that's all there ever was. As long as there are people living there, this is what they'll be speaking.There are another couple hundred in Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland. I'm still in touch with them. Adults and kids still speak Pááfang.