Sgaw Karen: Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language That I’ll Rarely Use

Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language That I’ll Rarely Use

On Studying Sgaw Karen

To my left, just out of arm’s reach, a tall man hacks cuts from the torso of a pig that he’s laid across a giant slab of wood. I look back to the stone mortar and pestle in my hands. A shorter man with long curly hair throws a handful of dried chilies in. He stands back and smiles in approval as I smash them into oblivion and feel my eyes begin to burn. They speak to one another, but I’m silent.


Somewhere in the jungle along the Thai-Myanmar border, I’ve been drafted into the kitchen workforce on barbecue day in a Karen village. The Karen are a group of indigenous ethnic groups from Myanmar and northern Thailand. They speak any of a number of Sino-Tibetan indigenous languages. This village, on the green banks of the wide and muddy Salween River, speaks Sgaw Karen language.

The Salween River
The Salween River

My Decision To Learn Sgaw Karen

I’ve lived in Thailand for two years and my Thai is decent. I’ve dabbled in Burmese in honor of a couple trips to Myanmar. My Vietnamese goes as far as “can I take your picture?” and “take it easy.” But despite having close relationships with a number of Karen, I don’t speak a word of their languages.

I’ve never touched an indigenous language. At the beginning of this year, I realized I need to. Sgaw Karen it is.

Historical and cultural structures of power and privilege dictate the languages we choose to learn. National languages have a platform that allows them to spread, survive and evolve in a way that’s much harder for languages that lack this reach—especially indigenous languages. If we care about an indigenous culture, we have a duty to learn their language, to support them to preserve their culture and to spread this appreciation.

Preserving Indigenous Languages
Think of this jar of cucumbers as indigenous languages.

It makes sense to learn languages that are spoken widely and applicable to our lives, yes. For example, it was much easier to convince myself and others that learning Portuguese is a valuable pursuit (not that I got very far with that one), even though I have far more connections to Sgaw Karen. Indigenous languages are often spoken by a much smaller population and the chances that you’ll use one in an international metropolis may be much lower, for a whole host of reasons. But once you realize that a person can learn more than two or three languages in a lifetime, that’s no longer an excuse.


“Tabluh, tabluh,” says the long-haired guy as I pound his chilies. I look to him with a question on my face. We do a little translation through Thai—“tabluh” means “thank you.” My first word in Sgaw Karen. The guy adds garlic some garlic to the chili paste, a welcome change.


Soon, we step outside to throw the pork on the barbecue—a wide pit that’s already throwing off smoke. Salween River flows by, a broad expanse of silty brown water winding through the jungle. Within minutes, the smell of the barbecue is intoxicating and folks from around the village start passing through, ostensibly to say hello to my fellow cooks.

I realize I had an impending need for the word delicious. “Wee doh mah,” they tell me. And I’m mostly vegetarian.


The Importance Of Preserving Indigenous Languages

As Ellen Jovin, a well-known proponent of language learning put it, “Polyglottery is an antithesis to linguistic chauvinism.” As languages with more commercial or widely-recognized social value dominate, they corner and threaten languages that are central to cultural identities around the world, especially those of indigenous peoples.

The pursuit of polyglotism
Language over borders

Polyglottery may seem to some like a self-centered pursuit—it’s an incredible privilege for many, simply a part of life for others. But if we make the choice to take on a language based on our values, this decision becomes about understanding and supporting others, especially those whose lives feel impossibly different from our own. It helps justify the hours spent squinting at seemingly indistinguishable, cryptic, crop circle-esque characters. Language learning allows us to communicate with the people we care about and to use these relationships as a force for positive social good.



3 Reasons To Diversify Your Language Learning Notes With Colour

3 Reasons To Diversify Your Language Learning Notes With Colour

We’ve all been there before, stuck behind an imaginary wall of boredom while we slowly go insane scribbling in black and blue ink.  The idea of looking at your bland notes after a long day of study isn’t the most satisfying thing one can imagine. In fact, I bet half of you reading this don’t even look at your notes after you’ve written them. I know I’m guilty as can be. The fact is though, we just can’t help not looking at them, they’re so… dull.  But don’t fret there are more than two colours in the spectrum, so today I am going to share with you all 3 reasons why you need to start adding colour to your language studies.

Coloured Notes In Language Learning
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on

Colour Is An Attention Seeker

We are visual creatures! Colour grabs our attention more than anything else, this world isn’t black and white, so why the hell should your notebook be? Splash a bit of rainbow here and there. Colour pens are like a gift sent from the heavens, the sibling you never knew you wanted, the puppy you didn’t expect for Christmas. All of this and more! Colour adds a whole new dimension to your language learning experience. Imagine writing all your vocabulary in purple, grammar in blue and conjugations in green. The sheer amount of effort you put into cycling through colours will not only ensure the quality of your notes, but also the amount of attention you give them.

My notes
A mixture of my notes in Japanese and Spanish

Have You Seen The Instagram Logo?The Instagram Logo

Christ! That logo is probably the best thought of social media logo I can think of. It’s an entire rainbow spectrum, furthermore, there is a camera lens in the middle. Then when you open the app, you get even more colour, and vivid imagery because obviously, the app is photography based. Compare this to your language notebook, if people aren’t snagging your notebook from you to look at it, then you’re doing things wrong. How many likes do your notes have? Has anybody ever taken the time out of their day and said to you “Damn, that’s a really nice notebook?” Think about it, if everybody is writing in the same ink nobody is going to care what you’re writing down…unless of course, you’re writing from your paint palette.  Be like the Instagram logo when taking down your language notes, have an entire spectrum at your disposal, attract eyes instead of boredom.

Coloured Language Learning Notes
My Swahili Notes

Colour Helps Us Remember Better

Let’s be honest right now, how many of you have taken down notes from your Japanese language class, but because it looked so typical and bland you ended up remembering nothing that was said about the ~て(te) particle until you later sat down with the professor only to be re-lectured face-to-face. 🙋🏾‍♂️

Colour helps us to remember better
Photo by on

The reason behind this is that colour helps us create memories, and studies have shown that the more vivid the memory the better the brain remembers it. Writing your language learning notes in colour creates these vivid memories while keeping your attention. Its a twofer, and furthermore it looks amazing.  Try writing the word cat in three different colours in your target language, sure it might take you a bit longer but I can assure you, that you will remember it better than if you just wrote it down once in black ink.

So What Kind of Colour Pens Are Best?

Personally, pens that are extra fine are an amazing asset. As you can see in my study notes,  I used extra fine 0.4 pens. These provide for my accurate, precise lines and save on space in the long run. However, I also make good use of my blue gel pen. It has a smooth glide and it has a good weight to it when writing on the page.

Special Cases Non- Romanized Script

Screenshot_2018-08-13 Kiandro Scavella on Instagram “Confessions of a Japanese Addict #iregretnothing”(1).png

Now If you’re studying a language that uses a pictographic alphabet, then I recommend a brush pen. It’s a beautiful supplement if you want a set of heavenly brush strokes with an authentic feel to them. I highly recommend this brush if you’re practising kanji, Chinese or any other language with a none romanized script. There are coloured fude pen brushes, but the one you see me using here is just black ink, unfortunately.

 Have Fun Using Colour

Seriously, adding colour will add an entirely new dimension to your language learning journey. Even if its just only a combination of 3 colours! You will immediately notice a difference in your mood, motivation and cognitive skills when dealing with your target language. Its a form of therapy for all language learners and it works wonders in both the short and long run.

3 Perfect Japanese Learning Books For Beginners

3 Perfect Japanese Learning Books For Beginners

Japanese books for beginners aren’t all made the same. Language learning is a tedious process and finding the right materials to take you through to each stage can be bothersome. Today I’ll be guiding you through the basic layout of 3 Japanese books for beginners.

Here are my top 3 Japanese Learning Books For Beginners!

Genki I

Target Audience: Elementary Level I

Method: Dialogue Conversations, Vocabulary, Grammar, Speaking Repetition, Audio

Place Most Likely To Be Used: Any Japanese 100 Level Course

What Genki Will Do For You: Teach you how to read hiragana, a few basic kanji, introduce you to grammar concepts, get you accustomed to speaking Japanese

Recommendations While Using Genki I: Supplement your study time by reading the stories in the textbook aside from the dialogue.

Mary Genki I

Story Line: Mary is an exchange student you just arrived in Japan. If you’ve ever been an exchange student in Japan you know just how scary it can be at first, literally terrifying. Mary is looking for all the help and advice she can get while trying to learn more about Japan and Japanese. She meets a young man named Takeshi and they go on adventure after adventure. The storyline is designed to teach you a new aspect of Japanese culture while learning the language, just like Mary. Its an extremely interesting tale, and quite frankly I don’t think you’ll get bored of it… it reminded me of a comedy-drama.


Reminder: Be sure to also use the workbook to supplement your studies with written content.

Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese Workbook I [Second Edition] (Japanese Edition) (Japanese and English Edition)

Genki II

Target Audience: Elementary II- Lower Intermediate

Method: Dialogue Conversations, Vocabulary, Grammar, Speaking Repetition, Audio

Place Most Likely To Be Used: Any Japanese 200 Level – 300 Level Courses

What Genk II Will Do For You: Improve your reading speed, expand your common word vocabulary, teach you everyday grammar usage, expand common kanji knowledge.

Recommendations While Using Genki II: Supplement your study time by reading the stories in the textbook aside from the dialogue. Also be sure to practice the new grammar by creating new sentences of your own each and every day.

Story Line: Mary has become a bit more adapted to the lifestyle at this point and more or less she’s just doing her own thing now. Takeshi begins to come on to Mary (in a more friendly way of course, because this is a children’s book) and he starts to offer more social outings and hangouts to Mary. However, Mary becomes a bit rebellious and troublesome due to her homesickness, and the situation just flairs out of control for a couple chapters. How will it end?

Meet Mary Genki

Reminder: Be sure to also use the workbook to supplement your studies with written content.

Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, Workbook 2, 2nd Edition (Book & CD-ROM) (English and Japanese Edition)

The combination of Genki 1 and Genki 2 are the ultimate Japanese books for beginners.

James: Heisig Remembering The Kanji

Target Audience: Elementary II –  Any Level

Method: Mnemonics, Kanji Memorization, Radical Memorization

Place Most Likely To Be Used: Independently, or alongside a kanji software such as WaniKani

What Heisig Remembering The Kanji Will Do For You: Upon completion, you will have memorized nearly 2,500 kanji’s English meaning, their radicals and have a creative story for each of them.

Recommendations While Using Heisig Remembering The Kanji: Since the book only teaches the English equivalent of the kanji, you want an alternative source of knowledge. If you plan to finish memorizing all 2,500+ basic kanji its recommended that you find a route that also allows you to memorize the kanji’s onyomi, kunyomi and gives you some vocabulary in context. The Kanji Study app is a great reference for that purpose.

4 Ways To Overcome The Language Learning Plateau

4 Ways To Overcome The Language Learning Plateau

Learning a language is one of the most rewarding things you can do in your lifetime. Nevertheless, it is still a challenging task, and sooner or later everybody hits the language learning plateau. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and just like puberty- everybody has to go through it.

What is a Plateau?

Are you familiar with the straight line ridge on a mountain or rock formation? Its usually right before the mountain begins to rise again. It looks something like this /————————————————————/. Well, that’s a plateau, and in language learning, it usually symbolizes stagnancy of progress.


Language Plateau
This is probably a better example than a line and a slash.

How To Know When You’ve Plateaued


  • You feel like you’re not making any progress
  • You feel like you should be light years ahead than your current level
  • Your motivation plummets
  • If you’ve screamed aloud to yourself “NOTHINGS WORKING!!!!”

It’s almost like a disease, isn’t it? Don’t worry though unlike looking up your symptoms on google this one has a cure.

Do you have a case of the plateau?
Photo by Pixabay on

1. Set Realistic Goals

If you’ve plateaued that means your goals are no longer enough to get you through your journey. What I’m saying here is that you’ve already reached where you wanted to go in your journey. So subconsciously you’ve managed to trap yourself in a limbo. You have two options in this scenario:

  • Expand your goals.
  • Change your goals completely

Example 1

If I wanted to learn Japanese to be able to read the “Jojo’s Bizzare Adventure” comic series, then that’s exactly what I would do. I wouldn’t learn vocabulary or grammar to read another series, because that would be outside my goal.



Don’t bite off bits bigger than you can chew. Keep the content you expose yourself to slightly outside of your skillset. You’ll be able to maintain what you’ve learned and what you are currently learning.


Example 2

“I learned Japanese to be able to read fairytales.” If this was your motive, but you’ve realized that you want to expand your understanding of the language to more than just fairy tales, you would need something slightly more advanced than “The Ginger Bread House”. In this case, your next book should be something like “Japanese Mythology “, rather than “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

2. Don’t Underestimate Native SpeakersAdobeStock_64840949_Preview

Immersion i.e speaking to native speakers will always be number one in language learning. Think about this, you’re learning a language that you weren’t born with, but somebody else was. That means in order to learn the language in a fluent manner. Keeping silent will do more damage than good in the long run. Textbooks, audio recordings and YouTube singalongs will only get you to a certain point. If you lack communication, then you lack the language. If you can try taking a leap of faith and travel to your target language’s country – that could be just the motivation you need. Not to mention you’ll have the time of your life, culture shock is one hell of an experience.

3. Increase Vocabulary Ten-Fold!

Learn More Vocabulary
Photo by Pixabay on

Words are the building blocks to a language, they create everything. How many words are you aware of in your first language? You probably can’t even give me an accurate number. This should be the mindset you have when learning a foreign language. Keep stacking vocabulary, the more the better. Vocabulary acquisition in our native language is unconscious in most cases. If we see something we aren’t familiar with, we don’t take out a notepad and attempt to memorize its origin, spelling and definition. Rather we incorporate its existence into our own.


“The firefighter is using the fire hydrant for his supply of water.” The trick here is that you have no idea what a fire hydrant is. What do you do? You look around to see what the firefighter is using as a source of water.


Categorize your vocabulary

What if one day you studied business-related words, the next day you did science etc. This way you won’t become easily confused when managing massive lists of vocabulary (not that you should be counting anyway).


Learn to incorporate vocabulary into your thought patterns. If you see a TREE that is not just a tree, that my friend is an ARBO. If you see an ARBO, that is not just any arbo, that’s a 木。

This is not JUST a tree
Is this really JUST a tree?

4. Change method and routine – Consistency

Routine is very important in language learning, but it is a double-edged blade. If you stick to one routine and method for too long your brain will go on autopilot. Thus meaning, the enormous amount of information needed to learn a language will not stick.  If you’re accustomed to using software, start writing more often vice versa. Language learning is not a stagnant process by any means so plateauing means you’ve been stagnant for too long.  Changing your routine can give you fresh ideas, restore your focus and re-motivate your agenda.

Final Piece Of Advice

Don’t let the plateau intimidate you! Believe it or not, although the plateau may symbolize a state of stagnancy, you’ve actually made tremendous progress to even get to that point in the first place. Stay creative, be consistent and always remember your motivations!

3 Reasons Why Slang Is Used In Spoken Language

 Para ser um vencedor, é preciso superar a si mesmo (futebol 2018)

The Monster Whose Name is Slang

Slang is without a doubt a major part in language learning, some people call it “colloquialism”, others call it “jargon” – but for simplicity sake, we’re going with “slang” today. Let’s face it, no matter how hard we try to learn a language there are always some things that manage to slip between the cracks. Ever came out of a really intense language class only to hear native speakers of your target language say something you are completely unfamiliar with? You then proceed to search through every dictionary imaginable, only to fail to decipher the meaning…. tragic.

Here are 3 reasons why a language learner (like you) should learn slang.

upset-534103_1920Don’t be like this guy…it went completely over his head.

Feel Natural

Have you ever heard anybody speak with perfect grammar, sentence structure and speech patterns 100% of the time? Think long and hard about it, everybody makes mistakes even in their first tongue. We all grew up in an environment which had a tremendous effect on how we communicate with each other. This is where slang comes in – there are words and phrases for actions and situations that would be otherwise inexpressible if we were to attempt to construct the meaning in perfect grammar.


All languages have something which I like to call a syllabary rate and input frame. What that means is that you have to say a sentence in a certain speed in order to get your meaning across in an efficient way. Languages that have more syllables than average for instance, Japanese will require a much faster output frame in order to string together a coherent thought. Slang dramatically cuts a sentence’s length by reducing the syllabary rate – you can say what you mean in 5 syllables instead of 10.

Here I’ll l give an example in Japanese: 彼女の家に行かなくちゃ vs 彼女の家に行かなければなりません。 Both translate into “I must go to her house.”. However, the difference lies in the slang usage of the final grammar particle. That’s a difference of 5 syllables! Slang just saved you FIVE WHOLE SYLLABLES.

Somebody say speed?

Outshine Your Friends

Learning a language in a language class is great and all, but one thing a language class lacks is the deliberate teaching of slang terms. You’re not going to go to class one day and learn the impolite, casual way of saying “____must do_____”. Nope, that’s not going to happen- what is going to happen is that you’ll end up sitting in a very structured grammar course in order to drill the proper structure into your head. WHICH IS GREAT! However, most language learners find that when they arrive at the country of their target language they become flustered with the amount of slang being thrown around. Slang helps with this because you become accustomed to the cultural nuances of the language, and it makes you seem MUCH, MUCH, MUCH COOLER than you actually are – not to mention you become a freakin’ Einstein.