When I say that I’m going to start learning Marshallese, I usually get the same reaction from people. First there’s the look individuals give you when you’ve just confused them. Then the daft questions start. They go something like this.
“One more time, what language do you want to learn?”
“Is that like a real language?”
“Erm…Yes, it is.”
“Where do people speak Marshallese?”
“Mainly in the Marshall Islands, but also in the US.”
“And where are those M-something Islands?”
“In the Pacific Ocean.”
Here is the moment when the puzzled stare gets even more puzzled. That’s when I reach for a map and show them the microscopic dots. A longer pause.
“Oh… And why exactly do you want to learn this language?”
Now, that’s a good question. Why have I decided to learn Marshallese? Let’s face it: it’s not considered useful, it’s not especially desirable, it’s not even popular. What is more, there’s not a drop of Marshallese blood in my veins. So why would I want to dedicate (or as some say: waste) my spare time to doing something like that? It’s not like anyone (maybe except for the Marshallese people?) will be particularly impressed when I say: “Io̗kwe” or “Kom̗m̗ooltata”. Well, let me explain to you why.
There are two things you should know about me. The first is that I am a huge Pasifika aficionado. I do think that the tiny islands that adorn the biggest of the oceans are…simply exquisite; one of a kind; unmatched by any other place. And the second is that I love studying languages. I genuinely enjoy it, like I enjoy eating chocolate or reading a good book. It brings me tremendous joy and satisfaction.
That’s how I chose to combine my two passions. I was vacillating between various languages, but eventually I opted for Marshallese – Kajin M̗ajel̗. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. It is, to put it baldly, at serious risk of disappearing. I wholeheartedly hope this nightmare scenario will never happen. That the islands will not get lost to rising seas, and their inhabitants will be able to live happily ever after in the land of their ancestors. That’s my wish. And, sadly, it may remain only a wish. That is why I want to seize the opportunity and learn the beautiful Marshallese language while I still have the chance.
I must say I am quite well prepared. I don’t have a dictionary yet, but I found a great textbook, “Practical Marshallese” written by Peter Rudiak-Gould, which looks very impressive and…thick. I suppose it covers all the important grammar rules I should know. I also took out a spare notepad and bought a set of blank flashcards to help me memorize the vocabulary. I’m not very tech-savvy so all those brilliant apps won’t be of any use here. But most importantly, I made a plan to study for at least 15-30 minutes a day (time permitting!), and I’m going to do my best to stick to it. Well, if you want to see results, you have to commit and follow through.
So yes, I’m motivated, determined, and more excited than I have been in a long time. I have a goal I’ll be trying to reach. I’m not doing this to show off or seem more knowledgeable. Nor am I doing this to prove anything to myself or to others. It’s just a “new” dream of mine (ok, not so new). I really want to speak Marshallese one day. I may never be fluent, but I want to be able to read a book written in this language and actually know what it is about or listen to a song and understand the lyrics. I want to be capable of communicating with the Marshallese people – to get to know them better and to show them respect. Finally, I would like to encourage all of you (and maybe even your family and friends) to follow my example. Believe me, learning languages is fun. And learning Oceanic languages is fun times two! Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan, Marshallese, Kiribati, Tokelauan, Chamorro, Tok Pisin, Bislama…the choice is almost endless.