Hacking Haitian Creole
Learning a language is a challenge that most folks quickly dismiss, thinking that they aren’t smart enough or that they don’t have the time necessary to make the progress needed to become fluent. The fact is, learning a language, while incredibly challenging, doesn’t have to be the daunting task that most of us make it out to be.
Now, before you think I’m some kind of incredible polyglot that has mastery of multiple languages, let it be known that I’ve tried learning languages… and I’ve always failed beautifully.
What I mean by “failing beautifully” is this: I took two years of Spanish in high school, made wonderful grades (A’s and B’s!), and walked away without any true Spanish skills. I certainly learned a handful of words and phrases, but hardly felt comfortable enough to actually communicate in Spanish beyond a scripted conversation with a non-native speaker in a classroom setting.
Jump ahead to college, where I took a few semesters of Japanese. It was a fun class, I made decent grades, learned a lot about Japanese culture and the basic structure of how the language works, but (again) left with very little working knowledge and would feel totally lost if I were to try to converse with a native speaker.
So, after my disheartening experiences learning Japanese and Spanish, I decided I was just one of those people that wasn’t any good at learning languages. While disappointing, this determination wasn’t too upsetting. After all, when would a math teacher in rural Arkansas ever need to worry about learning another language?
That was then…
Fast forward six years. Now, wouldn’t you know it, I find myself spending a significant portion of the year working in Haiti, surrounded by people who either don’t speak English or, incredibly, are fluent in at least 2 or 3 languages. Not only that, but, as with many cultures, showing interest in learning Creole is a great way to gain favor and respect among Haitians.
Looks like it’s time for me to re-evaluate whether I’m really one of those people who isn’t any good learning languages…
Tim Ferriss, author and blogger, believes that the reason most people struggle to pick up a second language is not because they aren’t intelligent or disciplined enough, but because they aren’t using the right methods. He lays out a framework for learning a new language, based on the idea that you don’t have to memorize a ton of verb conjugations and ridiculous grammar rules. As it turns out, one of the keys to having the all-important early success needed to overcome the anxiety of speaking in a new language is to deconstruct the language, stripping it down to the essential pieces necessary to begin speaking right away.
So that’s where I’m starting. He provides a list of thirteen sentences that, when translated, give you a quick snapshot of the grammar structure in the language. He also recommends learning helping verbs first (verbs like want, need, like, etc.), which can be easily paired with non conjugated verbs (want to eat, need to sleep, etc.). Once you understand how those thirteen sentences work, memorize a handful of helping verbs, and build a rudimentary vocabulary (100 of the most frequently used words make up 50% of all written English; 300 words, 65%) , you have the foundation you need to begin speaking. And once you begin speaking, that’s when you really begin learning.
What follows is the start of my journey learning Haitian creole.
To begin, here are the thirteen sentences you can use to deconstruct the grammar of a language:
The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to John.
Is the apple red?
The apples are red.
I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.
I’m going to know tomorrow.
I have eaten the apple.
I can’t eat the apple.
My first challenge was to translate these sentences in to Haitian creole. There are many translation tools available online, but I highly suggest staying away from them. The best resource for this task is, obviously, a native speaker. I enlisted the help of one of my Haitian friends, and was given this list of Haitian Creole sentences:
Pom nan rouj.
Pom nan se pou Jan.
Mwen bay Jan Pom nan.
Nou ba li Pom nan.
Li bay Jan li.
Li bay Jan li.
Eske Pom nan rouj?
Pom yo rouj.
Mwen dwe ba li li.
Mwen vle ba li li.
Mwen ap chache konnen demen.
Mwen te manje Pom nan.
Mwen paka manje Pom nan.
So… that’s great. What now? Each sentence has a purpose, which you can find on this post by Tim. Digging into these and looking for patterns, here’s what I was able to understand:
- Verbs have no conjugations and are the same regardless of gender, pronoun, or tense. (GLORY!)
- Second person pronouns (he/she) are the same for both genders (li). Other pronouns are mwen for I, ou for you, nou for us, and yo for them.
- Negations are created using the word pa.
- The fundamental sentence structure is the same as English: subject, verb, object.
- Eske is often used for asking a question.
- For future/past tenses, add either ap or te before the verb.
I’ve gathered most of this information into a one page grammar cheat sheet. As it turns out, Haitian creole has a very simple and straightforward grammar. This is wonderful news! The main thing I wasn’t able to glean from this that I will need to research further is the rules for articles (a, an, the). Otherwise, I’ve got enough to begin building some basic sentences.
Once you’ve got the grammar, the next big piece you need is a vocabulary. As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of everyday language is really made up of a small amount of words. Using a word frequency list, which ranks words by the frequency that they appear in a language, you can identify these words and begin working to commit them to memory.
There are many word frequency lists available online in a number of common languages. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate a list in Haitian creole. No worries though.. armed with a Creole-English dictionary, a list of the 300 most frequently used English words, and a couple hours of time I emerge victorious and ready to begin building a basic vocabulary. (I ended up with around 250 words after removing several duplicates and words that didn’t really translate well.)
To learn the words, it’s just memorization. And what’s the best way to memorize?
Everyone Loves Flash Cards
That’s right, I’m going old school. Flash cards.
But if you know me, you know that I’m not about to grab a stack of index cards and write out a list of 250 words. Oh no, my friend.. there’s an app for that. In fact, there’s a whole branch of flash card apps that go well beyond simply creating digital flash cards on your computer. I’m talking about flash card programs that use use algorithms that optimize how often you see a card based on how well you remembered it the last time you saw it. Remember a card easily? You won’t see it for a few days. Struggling to learn it? You’ll see it again in less than a minute.
Now that’s some tasty science.
There are several programs available, but the one that I settled on is Anki. The feature list for Anki is extensive, but the one that sold me was that it is cloud based. This means my flash cards and learning status can be accessed via a web browser, on my smart phone, and on my tablet. With a little effort, I was able to import my word list into Anki and begin memorizing the words.
Am I geeking out over flash cards? Indeed, I am.
Time To Get To Work
So this is where I’m beginning. I certainly don’t expect to have a grasp of the language once I’ve worked through these first few steps. My hope is, instead, that it starts me in the right direction. I’ll be spending several months in Haiti this year, and I’d love to have some fundamentals ready to begin speaking when I’m immersed in the language.
I invite you to join me in learning a new language! To help you, here’s several resources I’ve used or created in researching for this blog post:
- My one page grammar cheat sheet: Hacking Haitian Creole: A Beginner’s One Page Grammar Cheat Sheet
- Tim Ferriss has several blog posts on language learning that anyone looking to learn a language should check out.
- Anki SRS is one of many intelligent flash card programs, which are great for strategically memorizing vocabulary.
- Here are the Anki flash card decks I created to kick start my Haitian Creole vocabulary. These two decks cover the same vocabulary, going two different directions: English -> Creole, Creole -> English.
- Benny Lewis authors the blog Fluent in 3 Months, and has also recently published a book by the same title (which I will be reviewing soon!).
- Sweet Coconuts is a fantastic Haitian Creole language resource blog.