Tuesday, 18 September 2012

POC: Tok Pisin

Tisa Itbam showing us how to weave a wall
Language is a critical part of understanding and participating in culture as well as being critical to building relationships. As such, it is no surprise that learning Tok Pisin is an important part of POC.

Tok Pisin is one of the national languages of PNG. In a country with over 800 different languages, national languages facilitate communication between people groups. Tok Pisin started as a trade language that allowed early colonialists and plantation owners to communicate with their workers. It also allowed workers to communicate with each other across their own cultural and linguistic barriers.

Although Tok Pisin relies heavily on English for words, it is not just a simplified English. It uses words in its own distinct way, has its own grammar and its own idioms. Still a trade language in many places, it has also become a first language for some. This often occurs when parents are from different language groups and do not speak each other's language, but speak to each other in Tok Pisin.

Knowing English sometimes simplifies learning Tok Pisin, and other times complicates it. Simplification occurs when you try something using the English and it works. Complication comes when the English sounding word is a 'false friend' of the Tok Pisin. 'Mi laikim dispela samting' does not mean that you appreciate something, but that you want it and can mean you've requested that someone give you their possessions. Oops.

Another trap is the broad meanings of Tok Pisin words. The language has a small vocabulary, so each word has a wide semantic range. You may learn one meaning, then hear the same word in a different context and find the meaning quite different. 'Amamas' means happy, praise, gift, appreciate and probably more. 'Ananas' means pineapple, so be careful you get the word right!

We've been learning Tok Pisin using a variety of methods; songs, lectures, small groups, reading and storytelling. My teacher, Tisa Itbam, has been very patient at teaching us phrases, words and correcting us when we get stuck. Practising the language with our teacher as well as with our wasfemili (host family, more about that in another post) means that we have come a long way in not too long. Gaining confidence with the language gives me confidence to live and work here in PNG.

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