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Lessons from two days of Toki Pona

By Memrise Blog

A month has passed since 17 of us gathered at Memrise HQ for two days of intensive Toki Pona study.

My hope was that the Toki Pona-thon would tell us whether a super-simplified language like Toki Pona could have a useful role to play in the process of teaching languages generally… if the experience of learning a simple language could be fast enough and fun enough to spark excitement for and confidence in one’s ability to learn other, more useful languages.

Here’s what we found out:

  1. About half the participants ended the two days being able to speak pretty fluently in Toki Pona. That is pretty amazing. This was with a pretty crude first-pass at the teaching methodology. It suggests to me that if we improved the teaching methods, we could get most people to that level. Speaking a new (extremely simple) language in 2 days – exciting!

  2. Spending two days learning Toki Pona had a profound effect on almost all participants. Several have reported breakthrough moments in learning other languages, or starting to learn new languages as a result of the experience. Even some who didn’t end up speaking Toki Pona well have found the experience affecting and have changed their ideas about languages and about the process of learning as a result. That is very exciting indeed. It suggests to me that there might be something in the idea of teaching people Toki Pona as an interest and confidence builder before (or alongside) teaching other languages.

  3. An enormous number of people find this kind of radical experimental approach to understanding the language learning process to be exciting and enjoyable – I was amazed by the level of interest and involvement from people around the world. That makes me feel intensely proud of the human race. Well done us! However other people seemed to find the very idea of the event intensely annoying, and needed to express that anger. The level of vitriol in the comments in the Guardian article about the event was a surprise to me. That suggests that it may be rather an uphill struggle to get more people to take on this kind of experimental learning strategy. But that just makes it more worth doing, doesn’t it?

  4. As a teacher you have to work incredibly hard to keep motivation and confidence up. As the person running the event I didn’t do a great job on this. In my defence I didn’t speak the language I was teaching at the start, which did make it unusually difficult to teach! The whole event was a powerful reminder of the level of skill and preparation needed to teach well – so a massive well done to all of you teachers! I am going to work out how to teach the language better next time (yes, there will be a next time!)

  5. Translating famous film scenes into the target language and then re-enacting them is a lot of fun. It lets you be funny in the language you are learning, which makes you feel much better about that language.

Here are some of the films we made…

…If that sparks your curiosity and you want to have a go at re-making a film scene in Toki Pona yourself, please do post it in the comments!

Finally, the immediate effect that the Toki Ponathon has had on me is that it has caused me to start learning a new real language – Welsh. So many ideas came out of the Toki Ponathon that I wanted to test out that I felt compelled to start testing them out on myself at once. If anyone is interested in a) joining the experiment as a fellow learner, or b) is a native Welsh speaker and would be interested in helping develop materials, please do get in touch with me at ben@memrise.com.

Tawa pona!