Language acquisition is a lengthy and difficult process. Having to memorize countless grammar rules, verb conjugations, vocabulary, and parts of speech can turn language learning into a constant uphill battle, in which the learner is never able to truly interact with their target language. Language learning requires constant practice, but practice is difficult when there’s just so much to learn.
Luckily, there is a language which avoids most of these common struggles. Introducing Toki Pona, the constructed language with 130 some-odd words. Created by Canadian linguist Sonja Lang, Toki Pona strives to simplify thoughts. Not only is Toki Pona a fun and stress-free language to learn, but it also teaches learners plenty of practical language learning lessons.
Toki Pona is by no means an easy language to master. It does, however, have a very low entry level as compared to natural languages. Learners can easily pick up the language thanks to its simple phonology and structures. Since Toki Pona doesn’t require the same intensity as other languages, it provides learners with a safe environment to experiment with language and to learn applicable lessons for natural language learning.
It’s often said that the only way to learn a language is to repeatedly try and fail. Unfortunately, many people give up on languages when their failures vastly outnumber their perceived achievements. With Toki Pona, progress happens much faster and is more apparent to the learner. Most people learn Toki Pona by practicing the language with others in online spaces. Through communal learning, learners gain proficiency quickly as they receive immediate feedback on their work. Toki Pona spaces encourage immersion, and learners can take this methodology and apply it to their other languages.
Of course, Toki Pona still has its difficulties. For instance, many newcomers to the language have trouble coping with its ambiguity. Since the language has so few words, words and phrases take on broad ranges of meaning, rather than the hyper specific definitions of natural languages. For example, mi moku can mean “I eat,” but it could just as easily be interpreted as “I am food.”
Ambiguity is embedded in the philosophy of the language. What this means for learners is that just knowing the meanings of words is not enough– their context matters as well. If your real estate agent just closed a deal on getting you that new home, they might say mi pana e tomo tawa sina (“I give you a house”). But if your deadbeat, good-for-nothing brother just sold your car without your permission, he’d probably say the same thing when he breaks the news (“I gave your car away”). Context is key.
This lesson extends to natural languages: even if you know all of the important words in a language, if you don’t know how they fit together in a greater linguistic and cultural context, you’ll never get anywhere. By practicing with Toki Pona’s small inventory, speakers can gain the confidence they need to understand context and construct meaningful phrases in their languages of study.
Toki Pona also has various features which languages like English lack, such as particles which mark grammatical features, verb repetition to mark questions, and no word for “yes.” As learners become used to these simple yet foreign concepts and learn to use them effectively, they may have an easier time when they encounter similar concepts in their target language.
In particular, Toki Pona words teach speakers to drop their anglophone tendencies. Take the word olin, for example. This word can be translated as “love,” but its meaning is more accurately “relating to deep, emotional connections and bonds.” This meaning is captured by the English word “love,” sure, but “love” means much more than that in English. Americans love hot dogs, for example. But this is a kind of love that isn’t encompassed by olin; you wouldn’t typically olin an inanimate object in Toki Pona. So, olin is a concept that is somewhat untranslatable into English, at least not into one single word. This is the case for many words in Toki Pona.
Learning how to deal with untranslatable words in the environment of Toki Pona can directly help learners handle untranslatable words in other environments. Consider German. Keeping with the love theme, the verb lieben is very similar to olin. Like Toki Ponists, Germans are very reluctant to use this word to describe objects or things they adore. Lieben, like olin, is only one part of the English “to love,” so it’s not directly translatable. But if one can understand how olin works, they will have no problem mastering lieben.
This points to perhaps the most important message embedded in Toki Pona: learning to speak a new language isn’t just learning a new way of saying things, it is learning a new way of understanding things. Different languages aren’t all the same guy in different hats. Different languages have different sets of concepts, entirely different ways of seeing things. An English speaker’s concept of love is different from a German speaker’s, and this is reflected in their languages. Learning a language is as much an exercise in cultural understanding as it is one in vocabulary memorization. Once a learner realizes this, the quirks of languages start to make more sense, and things begin to fall into place.
~ Pat Mallory `26