Papiamento and Language Acquisition Resources – Week 38

I just spent two days in Aruba, and earlier this year I was briefly in Curaçao. Four languages are widely spoken on these islands, but among themselves the locals speak Papiamento. Listening to the language for just a few minutes reveals that it seems to be a curious mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. According to what some islanders told me, slaves developed Papiamento as a way to speak to each other without their masters understanding. Many of these slaves came from Cape Verde, so at its root Papiamento seems to be a Portuguese Creole, but with vast amounts of Spanish and Dutch vocabulary thrown in. The truth about the origin of Papiamento seems to be far more complex and controversial, but this local explanation is colorful and sheds some light.

If you already speak the three source languages, Papiamento is very easy to pick up. I don’t speak Dutch, but English goes a long way toward filling the gap, along with my Portuguese and Spanish. At a meeting in the Aruban Parliament, the President of the Parliament, knowing I had just arrived on the island, was amazed when I requested “Koffie preto” to drink. Unlike less familiar languages, in which I generally need to hear a term repeated dozens of times in order to assimilate it, I had heard Koffie preto just once and began using it immediately. Koffie is pronounced just like “coffee,” and preto is the exact word for “black” in Portuguese. To give just a few more examples, the greetings Bon diaBon tarde, and Bon nochi are ridiculously easy to pick up, as is the polite Danki.

This enjoyable contact with Papiamento led me to reflect again on the relative difficulty of foreign language acquisition. If my language learning goal was to add any fifth language to my repertoire as quickly and easily as possible, I might choose Papiamento, and I’m guessing I could speak it fluently in just a few months of intensive study.

Since I don’t anticipate a need to spend significant time in Aruba or Curaçao in the future (unfortunately), learning Papiamento just for the kicks of speaking a fifth language would be silly.

Nay, I am a serious student of languages! At least I’d like to think of myself as such, and therefore I am tackling a globally important language that I consider the ultimate challenge in language acquisition![1]

In addition, I have been seeking out high quality resources for linguists, students of Mandarin, and language enthusiasts in general. I will eventually compile them into a permanent page on this blog. For now, I would like to share three with you that I have come across recently.

The first resource is a paper entitled Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, written by two staff members from the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute: Frederick H. Jackson and Marsha A. Kaplan[2]. The lessons it details are mostly congruent with my language acquisition theories, gleaned from my life experience as a language learner and teacher. Even some small details coincide, such as their opinion that class size should never exceed 6 students—the same rule I stipulated at my language institute.

However, there are a few concepts that diverge, and these differences are most interesting to me, since it is hard to argue with “FSI’s half century of practical experience preparing thousands of adult learners to carry out complex, professional tasks in foreign languages.” I hope to explore these conceptual similarities and discrepancies in a future post.

The second resource is an amazing website called “How to Learn any Language.” About two weeks ago I began participating in the forums on this site, especially in the topic Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies. I posted about my experiment, and most of the responses I got were very much against the prospects for my experiment to be successful. However, they were very smart and thoughtful responses, so I actually appreciate the challenge. Generally speaking, this forum is an invaluable resource for exchanging ideas about language acquisition and seems to be populated by highly intelligent and experienced language enthusiasts.

Another resource I have been using for some time is It’s specifically for people studying Mandarin and Cantonese, but it also seems to congregate a lot of bright and seasoned language learners. As with the other site, I have mostly gotten challenging and skeptical responses when I mention my experimental methodology. But I’ve also benefited from great film recommendations, the suggestion to produce my Qiao Hu Study guides, and a lot of enriching discussions. The forum is not to be missed by anyone interested in China or Chinese language.



[1] It is interesting to note that a fair amount of Mandarin is spoken in Aruba, since nearly all the supermarkets are owned by Chinese immigrants.

[2] If there is any copyright issue with posting this paper here, please let me know and I will be happy to take it down and provide a link instead.


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