There are virtually no textbooks available on the Kiribati (Gilbertese) language. I have managed to find only two books, both written by the same author. Stephen Trussel’s handbooks, which were created in 1979, are long out of print, so there is little chance you will be able to buy them. However, the author has converted them into webpages, so they are now accessible online.
The first of the two books, “Kiribati: Communication and Culture Handbook”, focuses on what to say in particular situations. Because it constitutes a kind of introduction to the Kiribati language, I have decided to start with this volume.
This topic-based handbook comprises 17 extensive chapters: First Contact / Personal History, Language Learning, Family, Arranging a Meeting, Getting Around, Commerce, The House, Health, The Meal, Occupations, Education, Geography / Resources, The Sea, Social Activities, Civil Structure, Miscellany, Glossaries. These are further divided into several smaller sections, each no more than twelve pages long (except for the glossaries).
The lessons start with an objective, which clarifies what the reader is going to learn in every chapter. The objective is usually followed by a dialogue (in English and Kiribati), a variety of activities, words translations, and further notes (often regarding local culture, customs, and traditions). Some lessons also contain short grammar references, but they are more of an indicator where to find a particular topic in Trussel’s “Grammar Handbook” than a real explanation.
Additionally, the author has included a brief but surprisingly thorough introduction to language learning, a self-evaluation sheet, and substantial English-Kiribati and Kiribati-English glossaries (the former is based on a list of high-frequency English words developed by A.A. Burrows expressly for the Peace Corps Language Handbook Series).
On top of all that, the textbook is adorned with beautiful pencil sketch illustrations, which definitely makes the learning experience more pleasant.
Ease of use
The publication is available in .pdf format as a whole book or chapter by chapter on the author’s website. No matter your preference, you will find it very easy to navigate. Chapters and sub-chapters are so clearly marked that you can go to the desired section without having to really search for it.
Another plus is the way the handbook is designed. I am not sure if this is intentional (I would assume so), but if you decide to print it out, you can do it in such a way that you will have an English version on the left and a Kiribati version on the right. It is a very convenient layout, which will surely save your time letting you compare the two languages as you go (no turning pages back and forth!). You may even be able to notice certain grammar similarities and differences (provided that you know a thing or two about the Kiribati language or are a professional linguist with a “quick eye”; otherwise you will need a teacher or at least the author’s “Grammar Handbook”).
The lessons aren’t long and don’t require the reader (or rather the student) to ingest too much information in one sitting. They are short, purposeful, and perfectly manageable even for busy people. Which is especially important if you are learning a language on your own.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, I would. First and foremost, because this is one of only two Kiribati language textbooks available. And if you don’t have much (or any!) choice, you should be pleased with what you have.
But this is not the only reason why I recommend this publication. It’s a really solid handbook, carefully and meticulously thought out. Everything from content to design and layout to usability is more than satisfactory. It is, of course, not one of those full-colour, glossy textbooks you are used to seeing on the bookstore’s shelves, but it is definitely enough if you aspire to learn the Kiribati language.
There is, however, something you may not like. As I have mentioned at the beginning of this review, the handbook is converted into .pdf, and on a few pages you can find the author’s handwritten notes. Personally, they don’t bother me at all, but for some people it may be a problem.
All in all, I think this is a book worth having. It is good, accessible online free of charge, ready to be used. What more can you want?