TokiPonathon and the first Actual Fluency Meetup in London

I just spent a lovely week in England visiting people, hosting the first-ever Actual Fluency meetup and learning the minimalist constructed language: Toki Pona. In today's post I'll share a few more details of how that went.

“Is Pona the only word you learnt?” –TokiPonathon participant to Memrise Ben, after Ben had said Pona 24 times within a few minutes.

In a minute Ed will come and share some pre-bed rituals.-Memrise Ben at the end of Day 1

I just returned home from a week in England, visiting friends and taking part in the Memrise Toki Ponathon (first annual?) where I, together with 16 others, learned the constructed, minimalist language of Toki Pona. If you are interested in more information on TP, you can listen to AFP 20, where I interviewed the creator, Sonja Lang.

Note: I'm still useless at taking pictures.

The first Actual Fluency meetup

Thank you to everyone who showed up at the Montagu Pyke near Leicester Square, the venue was far from optimal and I will try and find more quiet surroundings for the next meetups. I still consider it a success as we had a great time discussing not only languages and language learning but lots of philosophical topics. Thanks to Andrew, Fabian, Kristian and Matthew for stopping by it was awesome.

Toki Pona – Toki what now?

I had heard about TP earlier in the year, when my friend Chris Huff was doing a talk on the language at the Berlin Polyglot Gathering (have you signed up for the next one yet?) At that time I wasn’t exactly super positive about conlanguages, believing that it was better to focus my efforts on natural languages.

This attitude changed at the conference when I met a lot of Esperantists and later took part in an Esperanto course in Germany. I was still on the fence about Toki Pona though, since it seemed to me like an experiment at the best of times, and my schedule was getting more and more cramped with all the projects I was doing and trying to learn both Russian and Esperanto at the same time.

I didn’t think more about it, before Memrise announced their TokiPonathon that I considered learning TP. It’s no secret on this blog, that I’m a huge Memrise fan and the chance to learn a language in 48 hours seemed a cool challenge for me. I immediately wrote to Ben, the organiser and basically begged him to let me tag along.

Luckily he let me, and I was registered. I blocked out the two days at work, ensuring that full focus could be given on learning TP.

Arriving at the Memrise offices

The Memrise offices are in a top secret old church, located on 31 Wadeson Street, East London. It’s quite close to Bethnal Green on the central line. I got there slightly delayed, as my bus had taken over twice as long as it should have. I quickly got seated and was straight into the group.

We introduced ourselves and made associated nicknames, in the spirit of the season I opted to go for Christmas Chris, I’m not sure if people found that helpful or not. Before long we were let loose to conquer the limited vocabulary of just 120 words. Actually, it’s not really the vocabulary as you can connect nouns to form additional vocabulary that has to be learned and memorised. But the 120 or so original words is a great place to start.

I quickly powered through the course, along with a few others. It was relatively easy to remember, as the languages Sonja Lang got the words from are languages that I have at least an awareness of. The trouble came with we had to start making sentences. You might ask, how hard can it be if there are only 120 words? But the fact is that because one’s selection of words is so limited, one has to really be creative to not only pick the words, but also the sentence structure. Whereas English has the modifier first, e.g: a blue car, toki pona does the inverse, putting the noun (or the most important word) first. This also takes some getting used to.

I think the breakthrough of day one, came when we all went to a café-kind-of-thing very close to the HQ. We were given English sentences and told to translate them into TP, before sending them off to the other groups in video format. We all had a ton of fun and got to know each other better.

My impression of the other participants was that they were all kind of interested in learning languages, but they hadn’t really found or embraced the polyglot community or feeling. I tried to encourage everyone to join the events (Gathering in May and Conference in October) and I think I succeeded in removing that layer of pretension, that sadly deters many from going to these events.

Sonja Lang (the creator of TP) joined us via Skype for a chat. In the foreground is Memrise Ben and Zack to the left, he was one of the participants.
Sonja Lang (the creator of TP) joined us via Skype for a chat. In the foreground is Memrise Ben and Zack to the left, he was one of the participants.

I’ve said this since day 1 of my blog, using the name Polyglot for anything related to learning languages is not beneficial for growing the movement or getting more people to join. It’s a nice word, but unless you know it, and what it stands for, you will be turned off from going.

Anyway, I digress. My learning slowed down massively after the café visit, as I was still kind of tired from a busy week travelling and sleeping on foreign beds. I definitely couldn’t speak Toki Pona by now, although many made the effort of trying. By the end of the day one we all agreed that there would be no English the next day, I was skeptical about it at first, but the results next day showed that I was wrong to be skeptical about it. There was immediately more speaking done, and even though I struggled a lot I still produced somewhat basic sentences.

Day two of the TokiPonathon

Day two was somewhat more relaxed. We sat around the table and simply attempted to speak in Toki Pona as well as writing a small play and playing games. They were all great ways to keep the learning interesting, without overloading. We were supposed to finish another sentence-based course on Memrise, but I lost interest in it very quickly. In my opinion, flash cards in general are best suited for single words.

As the second day wound down we headed to a bulk supermarket to stock the office with alcohol for the Memrise Christmas party. It was a nice social event, but I was simply spent by the time the time hit 10 and with work early-ish in the morning, I had to retire early.

A huge thanks to the team at Memrise for the event and taking great care of us, we were well fed and looked after all through the event, not to mention the Christmas party. Also a thanks to the team, lots of awesome people, aspiring language learners, bloggers, and even a recent podcast guest. It was also great to meet Ben and Ed from Memrise in person. They are truly passionate about languages. I asked Ed about 1 minute out of his busy schedule and he took half an hour to talk about memory and upcoming features on Memrise, some of which I'm hoping I'm allowed to share with you very soon. It was similar with Ben, who just lit up in a huge beaming smile every time somebody managed to speak some Toki Pona or Sonja Lang said something particularly inspirational.

Also a special shoutout to our tutors Marta and Oliver, who were both fluent in the language. They were on hand to help us with any question we might've had during the day.

Reflections on Toki Pona

Toki Pona is an interesting experiment. I’m unclear whether or not I would recommend people learn it. It did help me think about a problem I had had recently in Russian, with trying to translate directly from my English thoughts. Toki Pona is so simple that it forces you to re-think your original idea, down to the core concepts and I think this is something that benefits me in Russian as well. I need to move away from trying to translate English into Russian when I speak.

Toki Pona is very, very easy to learn though, so even if the benefits of learning it is somewhat limited, it’s still a very small time investment compared to any other language. As long as you go through the official book, which can be done in a few hours, you should be ready to form sentences in Toki Pona.

Listening and understanding will take a bit longer, but that’s not a problem. Last Polyglot Gathering in Berlin there were a handful of Toki Pona speakers, so that’s at least one venue to practice.

Bonus: Ed’s pre-bed rituals for memory commitment success

I thought Ed’s pre-bed rituals were quite nice, so I’ll just share the cliff notes version here.

  1. Be sure to get to bed in time so you get ample sleep.
  2. Before you go to bed go over the list of words you learned and check yourself of how many you remember.
  3. As you go to bed and lie getting ready to sleep, force yourself to think in Toki Pona, trying to make sentences and anything you can think of. This forces stronger neural pathways.
  4. As soon as you get up go back to your list and check yourself again. This continues your memory on the path from yesterday.
  5. Success!

Mi tawa! (Goodbye, lit. I’m leaving)

What is your experience with Toki Pona? What do you think of the concept? Let me know in the comments below 🙂