I have a question for you: what’s the difference between a boy and a girl? And no, I’m not talking about the “obvious” things here. (We all are well aware of the fact that men are from Mars and women from Venus.) Any ideas? No? Let me give you an answer then. It may surprise you. Even shock you… There is almost no difference. At least in Marshallese.

For a good few weeks now, I have focused my attention on vocabulary rather than grammar. That’s probably because for me, Marshallese grammar is quite easy to grasp – at least at this level. It’s logical and effortless to remember. I make notes and I already know how to build a sentence. I don’t have to “study” it; it comes to me naturally.

Vocabulary, on the other hand, pose a slightly (just slightly) bigger challenge. And because it is essential if you want to be able to speak a language and understand what’s being said, I really try to give time to it, so I can master every single word I learn.

Learning vocabulary is nothing complicated – all you have to do is memorize the word and its definition and then make sure that the information gets stored in your brain. To do that, you have to revise. A lot. And often. Preferably every day. Still, easy-peasy. But when you suddenly come across two words that look nearly the same, you know that the real fun is about to begin.

Any foreign language learner will tell you that similar-looking words can create confusion. Let’s take “than” and “then” for example. Even English native speakers have trouble distinguishing between those two. Who can blame them? The words are only a single letter apart! So if somebody from, say, the US or the UK has trouble telling “than” and “then” apart, think about all the people for whom English is not a mother tongue.

Now, as you can imagine, such words – words that look alike – can be found in every language; Kajin Ṃajeḷ is no exception. I know this, because I happened to bump into them recently. At first, they were just some new words I had to learn. No problem at all. I did what I always do. I memorized them (without difficulty); next day I started my revisions. Yes, I do revise words I already know, because I don’t use them on a day-to-day basis and I want to make sure they will stay in my head. So anyway, I was halfway through my revision when I realized that I remembered all the new words except those similar-looking ones! Does “eṃṃaan” mean “good” or “man”? Ok, it means “man”; “eṃṃan” means “good”. We also have “jān” and “jāān”. Which of them means “from”? Oh, it’s the former. The latter means “money”. I went on like this for a while. “Ṃōj” (“finished”, “done”) and “ṃōk” (“tired”). “Jokwe” (“to live”) and “Iọkwe” (“hello”, “goodbye”, “love”). “Eto” (“It is a long time”) and “etto” (“a long time ago”). These are merely a few examples. The list continues to grow. Somehow I have this feeling that it’s going to be a never-ending story…

Learning all those similar-looking words would surely be easier for me if I knew how to pronounce them correctly. Unfortunately, I don’t. Which means the only thing I can do right now is to read them over and over again until I can say – with 100 % certainty and without a shadow of a doubt – that “eṃṃan” means “good” and “eṃṃaan” means “man”.

I’m gabbing here about my learning issues, and you are probably wondering about that boy/girl difference. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the difference is virtually non-existent. A “girl” in Marshallese is “leddik”, a “boy” – “ḷaddik”. Yeah… Quite the same, huh? I know, all those lucky people who speak Kajin Ṃajeḷ will tell you right away that these two words are poles apart. That one is from Mars, and the other is from Venus. But me, I guess I still think they are both from the planet Earth. And I can’t remember which is which. So if we ever meet, my dear reader, and I’ll call you “ḷaddik” instead of “leddik” (or the other way round), please don’t be mad at me. That will simply and literally mean that I haven’t learnt my lesson yet.

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