Let's Learn Toki Pona Blog

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Date: 30th Sep 2007
mi sona e toki pona!

Well, I've now completed my second pass of the Toki Pona lessons and I think I have now cracked the grammar, as well as cementing my knowledge of the vocab. So as I hoped, I have basically succeeded in learning Toki Pona in 2 weeks. That is to say, I know the vocab and the grammar rules - active use will require a lot of reading and translation practice, which is what I plan to do next. I plan to identify some appropriate texts to translate into Toki Pona. I think these texts need to be: short, simple and not too serious..

So what are my impressions of Toki Pona, having learnt the language? I would say it is a mixture of Tok Pisin, Chinese and Hawaiian. The lack of specificity in the vocab is the biggest challenge in using this language; on the other hand, only having 118 words to learn is a big advantage.

There are a couple of points in the grammar that could still give me problems. I had to go over lesson 11 on pi twice (three times in total) before it clicked into place: the pattern is always N pi N A where A qualifies only the second N, and that holds also for examples like tomo pi jan Lisa, if you think about it..

The various ways of saying "and" will also take some getting used to. This phrase from lesson 4 is very hard for me to parse: mi moku li pakala. This makes me wonder whether it might not be a better to simply generalize the use of li.


Date: 25th Sep 2007
Vocab down, grammar to go..

As I predicted in a previous entry, learning the vocab of Toki Pona has proved quicker than learning the grammar. This is despite most of the 118 words being a priori for me with few mnemonic hooks to aid learning. I used these Toki Pona flashcards to confirm that I have memorized all 118 words, and can translate the cards in both directions (TP to Eng, Eng to TP). The one TP word I had trouble with was lupa, I kept thinking it was lapu, perhaps confusing it with lape. I do find there is a fair bit of "phonological crowding" in TP, eg. toki, pona, poki, poka; suwi, suli, seli etc. I have also learnt some of the compounds (formed from two or more TP words to express more concepts).

There are definitely some aspects of the grammar that are giving me problems, eg. the rules for when to use pi. The only way to nail the grammar is to go back over the lessons, this time at a much slower pace. Now I have the vocab down, it should be possible to focus on the grammar this time, so hopefully by the time I've finished the second pass I should have Toki Pona down.

I'm still missing TP translations for some English words: follow, live, shut, begin, space. Perhaps some of these need paraphrases, eg. follow = tawa lon monsi jan ante or tawa lon nasin pi jan ante (depending on the context). I've joined the official Toki Pona group at Yahoo.


Date: 22nd Sep 2007
Last lesson and first gripes

Having completed a first pass of all the lessons, I feel I can now explain some of the initial criticisms I have of Toki Pona. The lessons were an excellent introduction to the language, but they left a few unanswered questions. The three main areas where I have some criticisms are:

1) The pronunciation guide says that the first syllable of a word is always stressed. As an English speaker this should not be too much of a problem, but the stress does seem too far forward on many 3-syllable words. Some examples where I would prefer to stress the middle syllable are: akesi, kalama, kulupu, sitelen. All these words sound unnatural to me when the first syllable is stressed.

2) The rules for when to use li seemed simple enough: with all subjects except mi and sina. However I was not expecting the addition of mute to require the use of li. I was expecting mi mute, sina mute to follow the same rule as mi, sina. This makes the rules for when to use li seem a bit arbitrary to me.

3) The very small lexicon in Toki Pona means that there is a heavy reliance on context, and lots of room for ambiguity. At times the potential for ambiguity seems a little too much. Some words seems to cover a very wide number of concepts, and it would be good if there were some way to add additional words to clarify which concept is meant. For example, what kind of kala (fish), what kind of soweli (land mammal)? There are many different kinds of each.

On this note, I have decided to look through the thematic word lists next, to see how Toki Pona words can be combined to express more concepts. After that I will try to cement my knowledge of the 118 words, before revisiting the lessons at a slower pace, focusing more on the grammar this time.


Date: 18th Sep 2007
Mnemonic hooks and first lessons

I decided to start with a tour of the 118 official words, quickly confirming that there are very few mnemonic hooks to make learning the vocab easier. Reassuringly, two words are identical to Ido: sama and suno. For others the suggested hooks such as icky and yucky are better than nothing. I have come up with some really unusual hooks already for some words that are totally a priori for me: to memorize kon = air I came up with a film I watched years ago on a ferry, Con Air. There are still many words for which I can think of no hooks, eg. tawa. Memorizing these new words is proving to be as hard as I thought..

Undeterred by the vocab, I then made a start on the lessons. I find these lessons very well written and they are really helping me to learn the vocab. For some reason it seems much easier to learn Toki Pona words in whole sentences than in isolation, I am also internalizing some whole phrases (where they seem like set phrases, eg. tan ni = because). My plan is to work through all the lessons at a moderate pace (I am already up to lesson 9), then to revisit them at a slower, more considered pace. It looks like the lessons are structured so that by the time I have finished them, I will have met most or all of the 118 words. Let's hope so..


Date: 16th Sep 2007
And the winner is..

The votes have been counted and verified, and the result is 6-5 in favor of Toki Pona. So it looks like I'm learning Toki Pona. My initial thoughts: it is a novel prospect to learn a language where it may take less time to learn the vocab than the grammar. I'm interested in what I can learn from TP about limited vocabulary languages and how it compares to pidgins and creoles. There seem to be good materials available on the web to get me started. So let the journey get underway..


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James Chandler 16-Sep-07