MY EXPERIENCE WITH the love phrase made me even more determined to learn the language. But it wasn’t easy. For one thing, we had been taught Lagoon Chuukese, but the dialect on Polowat was markedly different. First were the phoneme shifts. An s in Lagoon was pronounced as an H on Polowat. Likewise a CH in Lagoon became an unrolled R. And it was very important, when speaking the Polowat dialect, to make sure and use the correct R, for if you rolled the R in a certain word when it was supposed to be unrolled, you could be talking about a rather private part of the female anatomy. The shift from S to H and CH to unrolled R gave the Polowat dialect a completely different sound from Lagoon Chuukese. The Polowat dialect, variations of which were spoken on about nine islands west and northwest of the Chuuk Lagoon, sounded like a deep-throated, flowing rumble. In fact, few Lagoon Chuukese could really understand it.
Then there were the vocabulary differences. It seemed that most of the easy words, the words we had learned in Peace Corps training for such things as “big” and “many,” were all different on Polowat. In Lagoon, “big” was wattei. But on Polowat, it was likap. Likewise “many” in Lagoon was chamong while on Polowat it was tolap. And so on, and so on.
The frustrating thing about learning a language is that it starts so slowly at first. One month on the island and I still felt lost. Perseverance is the key. It is also vitally important to dive in headfirst and not be afraid to make mistakes. Even if you roll the R in the wrong word in mixed company. Two months on the island and I realized I knew three times more than I did at one month, and by three months I actually began to feel that I could do this. With a language, the learning curve accelerates rapidly. The more you learn, the more you can learn. By the end of that school year, with a ship coming to take me back to Weno for the summer, I felt comfortable. I could communicate quite well, could understand easily when questions or comments were addressed to me, and could even pick up the meaning of most overheard conversations.
By the end of my two years, I was fluent in the Polowat dialect. I felt proud of that. I was finally bi-lingual. My accent, especially, was pretty good and I was even occasionally able to fool some islanders who heard me talk from behind them. When they turned around to see who it was, they were quite surprised to see me. Of course, I hadn’t learned any major language like the French I had studied or the ubiquitous Spanish or even Russian or Chinese. No, I had learned a dialect that, in the early 1970s, was spoken on nine tiny islands by a total of 3,000 people or less. Not something that would be terribly useful in the future unless I stayed in the area. I had also managed a working knowledge of Lagoon Chuukese, a language spoken at that time by about 50,000 people.
For all Peace Corps Volunteers, I think learning the language is vital. Language, to a large degree, determines how people think. To really appreciate the culture and the whole experience of living in a different society, learning the language is a must. But not all PCVs do. In Chuuk, most outer island PCVs became relatively fluent. Volunteers assigned to the Lagoon islands other than the main island of Weno also did pretty well if they made the effort. But those assigned to Weno, where much more English was spoken, sometimes never picked it up. A few years ago I showed slides to a group of Micronesian PCVs who had come to Guam for a mid-term conference. Less than half of them said they were learning the language.
Well, OK. Everybody has different priorities I guess. But to those PCVs who spend at least two years in a place and don’t bother to learn the language, I just have this to say: I love you.