Isn’t that Just Bad English? Tok Pisin Explained

For those who want to know what my newest language project is, have a look at this video:

This is the creation story in the Book of Genesis, as related in Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s national languages.

Wait, don’t drag out Google Maps quite yet!

Papua New Guinea is a country located north of Australia and east of Indonesia. Settled by Anglophones and by Germans, Tok Pisin has influence from both, although most notably from English (and it should be said that influence from the local languages of Papua New Guinea, or “PNG” as it is often referred to in shorthand, by far outweighs German influence on the language).

Tok Pisin (think of “Talk Pidgin”) is a Creole Language. For those of you wondering what the difference between a Creole Language and a Pidgin Language is, let me clear this up:

A Creole Language has native speakers. A Pidgin language does not.

A Creole Language evolves from a Pidgin, and Pidgin languages arrive as combinations of existing ones,  for the purposes of trade. The most widespread in the world is Haitian Creole, which is featured not only in Google Translate but also (surprise!) on signs in New York City’s subway systems (!!!)

My first-ever exposure to a creole language came about through my father, who worked in Sierra Leone. Because of influence from nearby Liberia, which was an area of Western Africa with influence from freed slaves (hence, the capital of Liberia is “Monrovia” and the flag bears a resemblance to that of the U.S.), there is an English Creole Language spoken there, known as “Krio”.

My father said two things about it: (1) that it was merely a “downgraded” version of English (I don’t remember if he used the word “downgraded” but he used a word very much like it) and (2) he didn’t even “understand why (he) needed a translator” (this thought came in retrospect).

The fact is, that Creole Languages are legitimate and should be treated as such. The idea that Creole Languages are just broken versions of other languages was one heavily peddled by…colonial empires (no big surprise there!)

All languages are mixtures of other languages. The same way that Tok Pisin has influence from the 800+ local languages of Papua New Guinea and from British English, Standard Norwegian has influence from Danish and Swedish. But I don’t hear anyone calling Norwegian degenerate. Or Dutch, for that matter. Or…most languages that have served as similar combinations…in Europe.

Creole Languages (every one I can think of has a base in a European Language) actually get their own language family, and are not classed with, let’s say, the Indo-European Languages.

Tok Pisin is spoken by millions of people, including those who have no command of English, including those outside of PNG.

I have flirted on and off with Tok Pisin for about two months.

Pros: Very similar to English (no surprise). The grammar is also very simple, with very few prepositions, with a very easy pronunciation system. Thanks to the fact that one of PNG’s official languages is English (and so happens to be the one in which the National Anthem of that country is written in), there is plenty of material to be found, in English, for learners of all stripes. You just need to know where to look. But given as materials are scarce on the Internet, I may…whoops, I don’t think I’m supposed to mention that quite yet.

Cons: Tok Pisin serves people from extraordinarily differing cultures within the country. PNG is actually a lot bigger than it appears on a map. As a result, consistency in vocabulary is…non-existent, even for native speakers! Consistency in spelling, while it exists in the letter of the law of the academy (yes, there is an academy for Tok Pisin!), has yet to catch on in some areas of the Tok Pisin world. This is a feature of Pidgin languages everywhere, actually.

The biggest con? The fact that, during colonial times, some British people used to address locals from PNG in a mixture of English and Tok Pisin, spoken slowly. My guidebook tells me that this is known as “Tok Masta”, which is very inappropriate to use as a white person to locals! But obviously if it were never appropriate for a white person to speak it, then…the guidebook wouldn’t exist. Also, British Royalty (in contemporary times) have sampled Tok Pisin during their visits to the country, and have received rounds of applause.

Tok Pisin’s identity is tied up with that of PNG, so much so that it is not uncommon for the national anthem of the country to play before Tok Pisin shows broadcasted out of PNG.

Here is my book, for Tok Pisin and other Pidgin languages of the Pacific:

2015-03-17 20.17.12

And here is…how typical of me… a musical sample!

Basil Greg, from my naïve understanding, became active in the 1980’s. One thing that also inspired this journey was the fact that my father had visited Papua New Guinea, a long time before I was born…


Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 2)

(You can read the first part of this post here)

Now we get to those languages in which my control of them is either slipping or weak.

Irish…I got a phrasebook back in October or so. I’ve been mostly relying on software aids, especially given as Irish pronunciation is THE hardest I have ever encountered (although it, like all others, can be adjusted to). Faroese and Danish are honorable mentions for second place…with Swedish slightly behind…Finnish being the easiest overall…

Okay, what do I need to do? I need to expose myself to real Irish. A LOT more. Given as my DuoLingo Tree for Irish is now complete, this is exactly what I need to continue. Especially with St. Patrick’s Day having come, I did have the opportunity to practice (including my first conversation! A very short one, though, but still…)

Overall, I feel that I am a few steps away from near-complete conversational fluency. But with poor time management and/or stress related to other tasks, this could be complicated further.

Cornish. I’m losing interest in it, and might drop it out for another. Finnish is in a similar place.

French, Italian, and Russian are in a limbo, because I have been devoting a lot more time to languages that I’ve been getting stronger in, these have not been receiving due time…I feel that I should rehearse French grammar with software aids, and for Italian and Russian all I need are…you guessed it…animated cartoons!

I feel moderately confident about Inuktitut. I have been learning a LOT of words but NOT a lot of real-life exposure. Thankfully, that can change, as typing “” into your browser will get you a very large collection of Inuktitut television, as well as plenty of other programs as well. Now if only I could include two-hour movies into my routine.

Then there are other mystery languages that I have been playing with, none too seriously. The day when I really get into these is when I’ll be writing posts about them.

Above all, I could draw the following patterns from this post and the previous one:

  • Maintain your strong languages with exposure, especially online media, unless you’ve soaked it up enough so that you feel completely full…
  • If you have a good grammatical control of a weak language, immersion!
  • If you have a weak grammatical control of a weak language, you should really be reading books and studying some more, as well as using relevant software.

Again, when I feel too overwhelmed by my time schedule that I’ll need to let go of a language, I’ll have to do it. But paradoxically, if I have the desire to learn a language, even for the stupidest of reasons, I should proceed.

If you have that desire, I highly recommend you follow suit…


Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 1)

With the constant notion that the Polyglot Conference is coming up in October, I have to be mindful of how I focus my energies with my projects from now until then.

Having a routine is good. Keeping the routine is better. So I published this post to reflect, as well as to “poke” me into following that routine.

English: I have to get that true American accent back. Somehow. Right now it sounds like a “mixture”, and almost everyone I know has remarked on that fact. People that knew me from before my big trips abroad and met me afterwards have noticed that my voice has changed. But can I change it back?

That’s worthy of another blog post in its own right…

Hebrew: Thanks largely to a lot of classes, I feel very confident. It seriously slipped when I was living in Germany, but thanks to the JTS folks I feel good about it again…

What I need to do: just browse the dictionary at points. I’ve had enough exposure to the language that I should be able to think of contexts without trouble…

Yiddish: Almost the exact same situation, except for the fact that on very rare occasions I worry about mixing up German and Yiddish, although it almost never happens now. (A friend of mine said that his professor said that when he wanted to speak German, he just used Yiddish with a British accent…hmmm…)

So what I also need to do for Yiddish is browse dictionaries and keep a good exposure with books and texts. The fact that I’m enrolled in an Advanced Yiddish texts class right now ensures that I have that.

With German, it is pretty much the exact same thing.

And now comes Spanish, the language that I feel I screwed up on more occasions than any other. As a very sensitive person, I have difficulty separating it from some of my failures involving it (not passing an AP exam during my senior year of high school has been a sort of never-live-it-down moment).

Right now, I know what I need:  my passive understanding is very good, and so I can watch television without problems. I need to convert that into active understanding by ensuring that I watch that television more often. Oh, and somehow divorce the negative experiences I’ve had with the language. Otherwise I’ll never get good at it…

Danish, in part because of my obsession with Greenland, has surged with progress ever since I got back to the United States. I never thought that I would get this good at the language while I was living in Sweden! I’ve had enough exposure via television that watching Danish TV now seems like as much of a waste of time as watching TV in English.

Now I’ll need to turn my attention to reading. And not on the computer! Print the articles or find books and get readin’ em.

Norwegian is a bit similar, although I’m not really as confident with it. I don’t believe that Norwegian TV is as much of a “waste of time” as watching English TV, so I still have to get to that ultra-confident point yet. In the meantime, using the same strategy as I have for Danish (getting articles) isn’t going to hurt at all.

Swedish has weakened. Significantly. I’ve just been lazy. On a side note, I do encounter a LOT of Swedes in New York City. I can’t really say that I can be proud of my progress in that language. And my accent still needs improvement…

My core vocabulary is strong, however. A lot better than it ever has been, especially when I was living in the country…I need to watch a lot of television in Swedish, and then, when I feel as good about it as I do with Danish, then I get more reading practice. I remember buying a Swedish-language book about seals when I was there. It is probably somewhere in that book stash in Connecticut…that would be just what I may need!

Dutch. Neglected. I almost considered forgetting it altogether. But the fact that it is similar to German and Yiddish ensured that it was pretty much a non-option. If I want to get better, then I know what I need to do: get a dictionary, and browse it. And watch TV in Dutch.

I only have one real problem with Greenlandic at this point: I need a stronger vocabulary than what I have. My accent is really good, I can get the flow and I’ve had a bit too much exposure to the language. I found the vocabulary for this language the hardest to acquire out of any of I’ve studied. I’m going to have to break out comprehensive vocabulary lists and start putting them into Memrise!

Northern Sami: I’m not as used to the flow of this language as I am with Greenlandic. My grammar could also use some brushing up (the cases I’m good with, I don’t even need to worry about consonant gradation anymore…if you want to know what that is, just go to the tag categories and click “Northern Sami” and read until you encounter something about it. Or ask me in the comments). My vocabulary could use some strengthening, primarily by…exposure to more Northern Sami language media.

I just turned on NRK Sápmi as I’m writing this. I could read vocabulary lists, but it would be BETTER if I were to expose my brain to the language more often.

And one last language for the time being, Faroese. Grammar is my biggest issue. And sometimes listening comprehension. I have more reading practice than I know what to do with. Listen, listen, listen…and find those scholarly works on Faroese grammar and know it as well as you can.

To be continued in Part 2

kegn dem shtrom

How Long Does It Take To Learn a Language?

Too many people have asked this question in order for it to be ignored any longer.

The simplest answer? There isn’t any end to the process, and as a result the time it takes to learn a language = infinity.

But language learning isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about knowing every word. It is about being good enough.

And how long does being “good enough” take?

Well, it depends on two factors:

  • How much you genuinely care about the language.


If you are genuinely interested in a culture and/or its language, the very act of studying it is going to be a lot less of a chore for you. In fact, sometimes it won’t be a chore at all!

Learning a language to fulfill a requirement or to get a grade or pass a test? The very fact that it is seen as “work” is going to drag down your efforts, or, in some cases, halt them completely.

The more you like a language, the more time you will be willing to invest in it, and the better you will find yourself making progress on your endless journey.


On an endless journey, enjoying the scenery is always what counts the most.


  • How close it is to the other languages you know


Some languages have more internationalisms, while others opt for purity. The Hebrew word for Music is “מוסיקה” (musika), but in Faroese it is “tónleik” (roughly, “tone playing”). Hebrew is Semitic, but does opt for lots of European words (in part because of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Russian roots as well as the British Mandate).

Faroese, while being a Germanic Language just like English is, does not have the Latin influence that many other Germanic Languages have (or, at least, it usually pretends not to).

If you speak English or another European Language as your native tongue, you will notice that idioms from your first language will be present in many others throughout the globe, in part because of language colonialism.

I remember a native speaker of Swedish telling me that he would need a “day” to learn to speak Norwegian and a “week” to learn to speak Danish. I think this illustrates the point better than anything else I could mention…

But how long will it take…me?

Don’t expect it to be a quick process. You could speed it up, but you would need a complete immersive environment (very much possible, even with oddball languages like the ones I study!)

Also, do not expect the idea of acquiring a language (or anything else) to be without any work. If you want to invest your time getting good at napping or drinking beer, then obviously you won’t require any hard work.

But if you seek to get good at (insert dream language here), yet alone claim that you speak it fluently, you should expect to put a time commitment into it.

Just because it requires time, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun!

Find a culture and language that you genuinely can spend lots of time with and not get bored. Once you find good matches, you will be so entranced that asking questions like “how long will it take me to get good?” won’t even be thought about…


It Would Have Been Enough for Me

A listening to Cornish Radio in the afternoon of St. Piran’s Day, it seems that, sadly, I have not reached my goal of being able to understand everything well.

That said, I did get somewhere…and somewhere is always better than nowhere. While I usually cannot understand the very fine content on the Radio / Cornish Wikipedia / Translations / etc., I can always make out a very general idea. That isn’t nothing. And had I not set the goal for today, then it wouldn’t have happened at all.

I know where I went wrong, and that wasn’t because my phrasebook got delayed for a long time. It was because I began the project with such extraordinary intensity and then, the passion faded. And by that time, I wasn’t really up to fully continuing with the project. Nor do I really know if Cornish is going to be a language that I will want to learn to fluency…we’ll see…

I could have very well blamed homework. The Jewish Holiday of Purim was also on the same day as St. Piran’s Day (St. Purim’s Day?), and obviously I was celebrating…and I could have blamed that, too. But the fact remains, that I know that I did something wrong, and that was start with too much energy. And when that energy was lost, I wasn’t motivated to reach my goal. Because I knew that, aside from this post, there wouldn’t be any real consequences (e.g. a bad grade).

It isn’t possible to win all of the time.

But it is helpful to keep in mind this idea (that I saw on a postcard in the Columbia bookstore) to shoot for the moon, for even if you will miss, you will land among the stars. And some of something is always better than nothing of something.

And here comes another goal, let’s see if I can learn from the last time:

17 March. St. Patrick’s Day. Can I become conversational in Irish before then? And, better yet, could I find some avenue to speak it on that day, somewhere in this fine city?


We’ll see…but for now, I’d like to wish Cornwall and all that is affiliated with it a Gool Peren Lowen! And my Jewish friends (and myself) a Khag Purim Sameach! (חג פורים שמח!)