Any language you don’t know sounds like a continuous stream of indistinct babble. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t understand the meaning of sentences you hear. But the minute you start learning a foreign tongue, everything changes. Or rather, everything should change. Because it’s not always as easy as you wish it were.

You would think that when you memorize some words or phrases, you’d be able to discern them in speech. After all, how hard can it be? You know the words; you have them down pat! Well, turns out, it can be very hard. That is precisely why “Could you repeat, please?” is one of the most used questions by foreign language learners.

I have been studying (yes, studying – I’m not just learning the lingo, I’m almost examining it) Marshallese for some time now. I’m generally quite pleased with my progress, although I’d rather move forward at a faster pace. But there is one thing I’ve been struggling with since the very beginning of my adventure – pronunciation.

I know the theory – I know how to pronounce each letter correctly (or so I think). But theory and practice are two very different things. And, unfortunately, theory won’t teach you how this or that should really sound. To grasp the right pronunciation, you have to listen. That’s not a problem if you’re learning one of the “popular” tongues, French for example. You can find a plethora of helpful material by merely going to YouTube and choosing applicable videos. Or you can watch movies and various TV programmes. And of course, there’s also music.

Ij katak Kajin Ṃajeḷ – I’m learning Marshallese – so listening is a skill rather difficult to practise, due to the fact that there are little resources available. Which does not mean I haven’t tried. Oh, I have tried! Believe me, I have. Actually, I’m still trying. I’m listening to whatever I can find in Kajin Ṃajeḷ. These usually are short videos on YouTube, but I have also watched a few movies! With subtitles, as you can probably guess. By the way, did you know that there are some wonderful Marshallese films? No? Well, I highly recommend watching “The Land of Eb”, for example. It’s a beautiful, emotional story you won’t be able to stop thinking about. But let’s return to my listening comprehension skills (or rather the lack thereof), shall we?

So, I’m definitely getting better and better at understanding what’s being said, but… It is hard and frustrating work. I’d love to be able to break the sentences up into words, but somehow that’s not really happening. Marshallese is a very fast language; fast and a bit “slurry” – to the untutored ear, that is. Whenever I hear somebody speaking the lingo, and I miraculously manage to recognize the words I already know, I notice that half of the letters you see in a written form are missing. Or, it’s the other way round – you hear letters you can’t see. I’m not sure which is worse, quite frankly.

Of late, I have been constantly watching and listening to a video poem written and performed by my favourite poet and spoken word artist, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. It’s entitled “Lessons from Hawaii”, and it contains – wait for it – two sentences in the Marshallese tongue. Yes, only two sentences. You may be wondering why, then, I’ve been listening to it over and over again. Well, to “feel” the language, like natives do. Plus, one of the words she uses is “ṃōñā” (food, eat) – for me impossible to pronounce (oh, that “ñ” letter!). So I’m hoping that after hearing it a thousand times, I’ll finally learn to make the correct sound.

I always knew that the road to mastering a foreign language is long, bumpy, and riddled with unexpected twists and turns. You take one step forward and two steps back. My biggest obstacle is the fact that I don’t have a person – a teacher, a tutor – whom I could converse with and who would correct my mistakes (“No, no, no! This word is pronounced differently. Try again.”). But I’m not nagging. I chose the language I chose, knowing that it wouldn’t be a piece of cake. It’s just… I would really want to be able to ask someone: “Could you repeat, please?” instead of rewinding a YouTube video to hear some phrase one more time.


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