In a perfect world, the written language equals the spoken language. You see a word and you know, instantly and without thinking, how to pronounce it. You hear a sentence, and you know what it means. You have no doubts, you feel confident, everything is great. Only it isn’t. Because this is not a perfect world. This is real world, in which letters and sounds are two very different things.

You have probably already guessed that I am yet again having problems with pronunciation and understanding. No, actually not again, because those problems have never stopped for me. But they started bothering me again. You must be wondering why. Well, it’s all because of the Offshore Podcast.

Do you know what the Offshore Podcast is? I didn’t, up until recently. So the Offshore Podcast is Civil Beat’s marvellous storytelling initiative that highlights important and sensitive issues concerning the state of Hawaii. I absolutely recommend listening to every single episode. I can already tell you that it’ll surely be an eye-opening experience for you.

But what’s the Offshore Podcast got to do with learning Marshallese? A lot more than you might think.

The third season of the podcast follows London Lewis – a young man who was adopted from the Marshall Islands – on his journey to find out more about his biological family and the country he was born in. As the creators help London uncover his past, we get to know a little bit about the Pacific country, its people and their culture – often from their own words. Words spoken in their native language.

I suppose now you know where I’m heading with this. The Offshore Podcast has given me the opportunity to practice and test my Marshallese skills. I could listen to a great story and, and the same time, check if I’m able to comprehend what I hear. And because there are very few recordings in the Marshallese language available, I grasped that opportunity with both hands.

It was a few seconds into the first episode when I heard kids saying something in Marshallese. Another minute or so and I heard the first sentence. I started to analyze. Emān. Did someone say “emān”? I think so if the translation is: “Four babies were born yesterday”. Yes, that must have been “emān”. Damn, I rock. Next episodes and I had similar internal dialogues with myself. Ok, they translated it into: “She was in the Marshall Islands.” Iaar … Ṃajeḷ. Wow! I’ve caught two words! But what’s between them? It should be “pād ilo”, cause she’s talking about location. Is it “pād ilo”? Doesn’t sound like it. I’ll try one more time. I won’t tell you how many times I rewound that one sentence. I will only tell you that I’m still not sure if the lady indeed said: “Iaar pād ilo Ṃajeḷ.”

I had no problems, however, understanding some basic words: “aet” [“yes”], “koṃṃool” [“Thank you”], “koṃṃooltata” [“Thank you very much”], “Eta in…” [“My name is…”], “bwebwenato” [“to have a chat”], “kiki” [“sleep”], “roñoul” [“twenty”]. Six words and one phrase. Lucky seven! Should I be happy? Or should I be sad? Taking into account that Marshallese speak extremely fast, I think I’ll view my “achievement” as a glass half full rather than half empty. It’s very difficult to distinguish individual words in the stream of speech. At times I felt as if I could hear nothing more than trilled r’s and soft, one-of-a-kind j’s.

One thing I’m certainly happy about is the fact that I’m starting to recognize the Marshallese accent. Utterly beautiful accent, may I add. When I was listening to the podcast, I could immediately tell if the person speaking was Marshallese or not. Every language has its own melody; learning it is actually part of learning the lingo. (Wrote the person who managed to understand 7 words/phrases. Well, you have to find some positives, right?)

So… Because of the Offshore Podcast I know that I probably wouldn’t be able to successfully communicate with Marshallese in their native tongue. Because of the Offshore Podcast I feel a bit (just a bit) disappointed by this fact. Because of the Offshore Podcast I realized I will have to work even harder to get where I want to get.

Thanks to the Offshore Podcast I had a (rare) chance to hear Kajin Ṃajeḷ. Thanks to the Offshore Podcast I could examine my skills. Thanks to the Offshore Podcast I’ve strengthened my motivation and reinforced my belief that what I’m doing is worth the effort.

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