Bislama - The Super Fun Language You've Never Heard Of

His name was Elder Bruce. I only knew him for a couple of months. He was quiet, a little shy, and he spoke a language I've never heard of before.

You've probably never heard of it before, either. And who could blame you? According to Ethnologue there are over 7000 known languages spoken on this planet, and the one Elder Bruce spoke is only spoken by about 10,000 people.

Elder Bruce is the one on the left
Elder Bruce from Vanuatu. He's the one wearing sandals.

The language? Bislama. It is one of over 100 languages spoken in the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. It is the main language of most of the urban residents of Vanuatu, and the second language of most of its rural residents.

I haven't learned Bislama, yet. But it's definitely on my language wishlist. I have learned enough about the language to be excited about it, even a few years after I first encountered it.

So what makes Bislama so awesome?

I hear all the time that Esperanto is the world's easiest language to learn. I suspect none of those people have heard of Bislama.

Bislama is a creole language. 95% of the vocabulary of Bislama is based on English words. The rest is mostly French in origin and some words from other local languages of Vanuatu.

Even though the vocabulary is mostly based on English, the spelling is different enough that you don't immediately recognize the English equivalent of most Bislama words when you first see them, but it's usually not too hard to figure out.

The grammar, however, is not English; it's Oceanic. And this is one of things that makes Bislama so fun.

Let's sidetrack for a moment

Here's a common language learning newbie mistake. Some language learners, especially new ones learning their very first foreign language, mistakenly think you can translate exactly word-to-word from one language to another. But that doesn't work, for a couple of reasons.

A word in English may have two or more meanings, but you have to use two separate words in your new language.

For example, the word "that" in English has multiple uses that I didn't even realize until studying Lao earlier this week. If I say "I want to eat that apple" or "I know that learning Lao is harder than learning Esperanto", the word that had two different meanings. In Lao, I'd have to use two different words, depending on which "that" I needed.

Another example of why you can't just translate word for word is from French.

In French, is I want to say "I'm eating," I can say "Je mange." But if I want to clarify that I'm currently eating this second, I could say "Je suis en train de manger."

Literally, I just said "I am in train of to eat." That sentence doesn't make any sense. But in French, it makes perfect sense. If a French person learning English told you "I am in train of to eat," you might think "Oh, he must mean he's training to eat. He must want to be one of those guys who wins those hot dog eating contests at county fairs."

Back to Bislama

This is why I would recommend learning Bislama. The vocabulary is easy to learn, but the grammar is different. So right away, you are forced to think like a Ni-Vanuatu (someone from Vanuatu).

Here's some fun grammar facts about Bislama. (Did I just call grammar fun? Yes. Yes I did.)

Bislama has so many ways to say "we"

In Bislama, if I want to say "we" and I'm just talking about you and me, I would say "yumitu". (Think you-me-two.)

If I'm talking to you about something my brother and I did, I would say "mitufala". (Think me-two-fella.) I'm talking to you, but not including you in the word "we" because you didn't do that awesome thing with me and my brother.

Now I want to invite you to go do something awesome with my brother and I. If I'm talking to you about something the three of us are doing, I'd translate "we" as "yumitrifala". (Think you-me-three-fella.)

Wait, there's more. "Mitrifella" is how I'd talk to you about what my brother, my neighbor and I did without you. If four or more of us did something without you, I'd describe us using "mifala". And if four or more of us, including you, did something, we'd describe ourselves using "yumi".

("Yumi, Yumi, Yumi" is the name of the Vanuatu national anthem. I bet your smart enough to translate that name into English now.)

My favorite Bislama word is "blong". It's a shortened version of the English word "belong", and it's used to show possession. "Buk blong mi" can either be translated as "That book belongs to me" or "My book." The country where I live in is called "Yunaeted Stet blong Amerika".

Why I think learning Bislama is a good idea

I have heard and read many people say that Esperanto is good second language to learn. It's easy. There was a study that showed that people who spent six months learning Esperanto and then eighteen months learning French were better at French after the combined 24 months than people who only studied French for 24 months.

There are a couple reasons why people think this is so. Esperanto is a relatively easy language to learn. It trains your brain how to learn a new language. It helps build your confidence in your ability to learn a new language. (In my case, I think it made me too confident, but that's another story.

For native English speakers, I think Bislama is in some ways even easier than Esperanto. Even though I've studied Bislama less than 20 hours, I can understand well over half of what I read in the Bislama version of Wikipedia.

One of my favorite things about language learning is when you get those "aha!" moments, when you've figured something out. Bislama has a lot of similarities to English, but is just close enough that you get lots of "aha!" moments.

So Bislama is fun.

What does Bislama sound like?

For me written Bislama is much easier to figure out than spoken Bislama, but I think that's because I don't have much exposure to spoken Bislama yet.

Here's a fun video about the weather patterns in the island nation of Vanuatu with English subtitles.

Where to start?

Wikipedia has an English language article about Bislama. And since Bislama isn't too terribly hard to figure out for English speakers, I recommend browsing Wikipedia in Bislama. Here's an article about Yunaeted Stet blong Amerika. (In an upcoming post I'll talk more about how to use contextual clues to figure out Bislama and other languages.)

Here's another site that gives some basics of the Bislama language, though I disagree a least a little bit about whether or not Bislama is a Pidgin language. (I think it's a Creole.)

And for those of you who are really interested in Bislama or just love the feel of real paper books in your hand, here's a book about Bislama grammar.


Sarah 27 January 2015

... damn, you made me want to learn this now.

I don't remember exactly what language it was, though I don't think it was Bislama, but I remember seeing Prince Philip described in a creole/pidgin (again, can't remember which so I can't remember which side of the division it falls on) as:

Man bilong Missus Queen.

I thought that was absolutely fantastic!

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Kent 28 January 2015

"Man bilong Missus Queen." Wow, that is funny. Thanks for sharing.

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Nathan 26 January 2016

I discovered Bislama tonight after finding I'm hooked. I love this little language. It seems so easy and fun. Now I wish this mission had existed when I served my mission back in 1998! Maybe I will have to take a trip to Vanuatu. Maybe I won't come back. I found the New Testament in Bislama:

So many sites too. Here is a PDF dictionary:

Mi wantem lan Bislama

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Kent 28 January 2016

It is a fun language. Thanks for sharing those links.

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