When you decide to learn an unpopular foreign language, you often hear various “pearls of wisdom” from you relatives, friends, colleagues. Rarely do they smile at you, give you a thumbs-up, pat you on the shoulder, and say: “Wow, that’s so cool!”. Their words are more discouraging than encouraging, and suddenly you get the feeling that what you are doing is … pointless.
But hang in there. Don’t ever stop chasing your dreams and goals. Don’t let others prevent you from achieving success. Whatever you hear, just remember to keep doing what you’re doing. And, consider this a warning, you can – and probably will at one point or another – hear a lot! I know, because ever since I started learning Marshallese, I’ve been getting hundreds of daft questions and thousands of caustic comments from those who should actually support me. So what exactly can people tell you? Let me give you a few examples.
They: One more time. What language are you learning? Marsha-what? / Kiri-what? / Pohn-what?
I: I’m learning Marshallese / Kiribati / Pohnpeian.
They: Is Nauruan / Kosraean / Tok Pisin a real language?
I: Yep. Google it if you don’t believe me.
They: Where do people speak Tongan / Bislama / Paicî?
I: In Tonga / Vanuatu / New Caledonia. Jeez, didn’t you go to school???
They: Is Tuvalu / Kiribati even a country? Or is it just some fictional place?
I: It’s a real country. Again, didn’t you go to school? You must have missed quite a few geography classes.
They: Where is Tokelau / Niue / Palau?
I: In Oceania.
They: You know that people in Hawaii speak English and since Polynesia is French, I’m sure they speak French there.
I: Yes, they do. Wow, you’re so smart! But, even though Pacific Islanders speak English or French, I think it’s cool to know their native tongues.
They: How many people speak Chuukese / Cook Island Māori / Nengone?
I: Not many. But so what?
They: Why are you learning a completely useless language?
I: Define “useless” please. I don’t consider any of the Pacific tongues useless.
They: Wouldn’t it be better if you started learning a language that you could actually use? French, for example. Or Arabic. It’s popular right now.
I: Well, French and Arabic are great. But I prefer Marshallese / Kiribati / Hawaiian / Drehu.
They: What are you learning Samoan / Pijin / Tahitian for?
I: Because I want to. It’s as simple as that.
They: You will probably never speak to any person from those M-something Islands / New Papua / Wallis and …
I: That’s Marshall Islands / Papua New Guinea / Wallis and Futuna. And why do you think I won’t? People travel, you know.
They: But those islands will sink anyway.
I: Let’s hope not! But if the worst happens, I want to be one of the lucky people who speak their language.
They: You’re totally wasting your time.
I: Well, that’s your opinion, which I disagree with. I’d rather learn a language than stare at my computer screen looking at photos of people I don’t even know.
They: Do you want to impress others or what?
I: Not really. But yeah, I think that’s quite impressive if you can say “I speak Samoan / Yapese / Marquesan.”
They: Ok, admit it. You’re a loner with no friends, and you have nothing better to do, cause you’ve already watched all the TV shows on Netflix.
I: Ha! Ha! So funny!!! I’m not a loner (but I do like my own company!). I do have friends. And no, I haven’t watched all the TV shows yet. Is it so difficult to understand that some people actually want to do something useful in their free time???
So, did I make you laugh? Believe it or not, but I could multiply the above examples. Somehow people just can’t grasp why someone would want to learn a language that has no more than say 200,000 speakers. Especially if that someone is not a Pacific Islander. I am not a Pacific Islander, and I am learning Pacific tongues. What’s more, I will continue doing it. Even if you keep telling me how stupid this is.