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Te taetae ni Kiribati

The language of Kiribati

This is the beginning of an online version of language handbooks I helped to produce in 1979 for the use of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kiribati. Except for format and minor additions and corrections, the content is basically the same as the printed edition, so while it can certainly be used for self-study, the activities associated with the lesson dialogues will often remind you that they were developed to be used (by Peace Corps Volunteers) in a classroom setting, with a native instructor, and with all the social and cultural resources of Kiribati available for the outside activities.


Table of Contents
An Introduction to Language Learning
Language Learning Self-Evaluation Chart
The Purpose and Design of the Peace Corps Language Handbooks Series
Kiribati / Gilbert Islands /Gilbertese (?!)

KIRIBATI (Gilbertese)


Writer       Stephen Trussel
Language Informants   Baie Teanako
Bauro Utara
Consultants   Gordon Groves
Terab'ata Groves
Bwebweata Tonganibeia
Kum-on Uriam
Artist   Mel Flanagan
Typist   Lisa Forrett


The series includes language materials in Belizean Creole, Kiribati, Mauritanian Arabic, Setswana, Solomon Islands Pijin, Sudanese Arabic and Tanzanian Swahili.

These materials were developed under the auspices of the Foreign Language Office of The Experiment in International Living's School for International Training.

Project director and editor Raymond C. Clark
Assistant director and editorial assistant Arthur A. Burrows
Administrative assistant Susan McBean

For further information, contact
The Experiment Press,
Brattleboro, Vermont 05301.

The Experiment in International Living, Inc., prepared this handbook for the U. S. Government under ACTION Contract number 78-043-1037. The reproduction of any part of this handbook other than for such purposes as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, or other "fair use" is subject to the prior written permission of ACTION.



The preparation of these materials, the first full-scale lessons for the learning of the Kiribati language, would not have been possible without the generous assistance of many people, both in Kiribati and America, who have given freely of their time and resources. I would like therefore to take the opportunity at this time to thank many of them by name, and to apologize to those left out by the limitations of space and memory.

Baie Teanako, of the Curriculum Development Unit of the Tarawa Teacher's College gave me invaluable assistance in the preparation of the draft edition of this work while I was in Kiribati, and provided a home and friendship during my stay. I would like to thank his family as well, for putting up with the inconvenience of a disrupted household, and for adding much to my Kiribati education.

Tom Donnegan, of the Ministry of Education, provided liaison during my time in Kiribati, opening many doors and smoothing the way throughout my work. And the other members of the Ministry, especially Atanraoi Baiteke, then Permanent Secretary, for his encouragement and generous support of the project, and Bwere Eritaia, Cultural Affairs Officer, for his advice and assistance. I must also thank Teken Tokataake, acting secretary after Atanraoi, for providing access to photo-copy equipment when I needed it.

Titi Rimon, principal of TTC, generously allowed me access to the resources of the TTC, both in terms of materials and manpower, and others at the college took the time to meet with me and offer advice and assistance.

Dick Overy, Librarian/Archivist of the Kiribati National Library and Archives was a tremendous help, not only in providing materials when mine were delayed in transit and a place to work while I was there, but also in providing his on-going advice and useful information throughout and after my visit. And his assistants as well, who put up with my intrusion into their realm.

Sister M. Oliva, of the Catholic Mission at Teaoraereke, provided much help and advice, supplied me with access to materials, and arranged for my meeting with Fathers Hegglin and Kerouanton, who were also quite generous with their time, and who made available to me copies of the unpublished grammars which have added much to this work. Bwebweata Tonganibeia editor of Te Itoi, who in the midst of his many obligations took the time and trouble to proofread and edit the original Kiribati material appearing in The Communication and Culture Handbook and to give valuable opinions on the Kiribati language.

Eddie Welch, acting principal of the Technical Training Institute on Betio when I was there, for making available the written resources of that institute, notably their training course in Kiribati, and Maraiti Katia, the compiler of the TTI materials, with whom I was able to meet. And Howard Van Trease, then director of the USP center at Teaoraereke, for providing me with a copy of their Kiribati lessons.

For assistance during my outer islands visits, I am grateful to the DOs and DEOs of Butaritari, Abemama and Tabiteuea for making arrangements for me on those islands, and to Steve Hickman, VSO volunteer in Agriculture on Butaritari for his hospitality and assistance. And to the sisters of the Catholic Mission at Manoku on Abemama, and the family of Kum-on Uriam, who gave me friendship and domicile during my stay there.

I would like to thank especially Teweia Teerau, his family and all the people of the Catholic Maneaba at Tauma on Tabiteaua, for their hospitality and invaluable insight into Kiribati culture.

Thanks also to John Pitchford of the Ministry of Health, and Wilbur Hoff of WHO, for their assistance and advice, and Kararaua Kabririera at the Catholic School in Taborio Ieta on Tarawa, for his introduction to the 'old language'.

And I must thank Riira Tebania and her family at Taborio, for friendship and assistance during my stay on Tarawa.

When the initial work in Kiribati was accomplished, I had the good fortune to receive the assistance and companionship of Bauro Utara, Curriculum Advisor For Primary Schools, who accompanied me to Honolulu for a three month stay during the preparation of the final copy of the materials, and whose labors show on every page. And Kum-on Uriam, Vernacular Teacher at the TTC, who took time from his studies in Hawaii to proof-read all the copy, for his suggestions and advice throughout.

I would like to thank Byron W. Bender, the chairman of the Department of Linguistics of the University of Hawaii, for providing me with the opportunity to undertake this project, and Roderick Jacobs, who initiated my interest and studies in the Gilbertese Language. And Ken Rehg, director of the Bilingual Education Teacher Training project, for reading through early stages of the material, and offering his suggestions and comments.

In addition I would like to thank Gordon and Terab'ata Groves, who provided my first lessons in Kiribati, and who have continued to provide assistance and friendship throughout my Kiribati studies. They also made available the manuscript of their Kiribati grammar, which has contributed much to the present work.

As this work draws heavily on the past work of others, it is fitting to mention here some of the sources on which I have drawn Besides the above-mentioned unpublished grammar (Groves, Groves and Jacobs), I was fortunate to have access to the manuscript editions of grammars by Fathers Kerouanton and Durrheimer of the Catholic Mission in Kiribati, generously made available to me while I was there. I have also drawn on Reid Cowell's "Structure of Gilbertese," Sister Oliva's translation of Sabatier's Dictionary, and the dictionary prepared by Hiram Bingham. As mentioned above, I have consulted the lessons prepared by the TTI, and those by the USP, as well as innumerable other sources available in the Kiribati Library and Archives and Pacific Collection of the University of Hawaii.

Finally I would like to thank the teachers and trainees of the Peace Corps training program on Abemama in July and August 1979, in which I was privileged to participate, for their suggestions of numerous spelling changes, and discovery of many of the errors which would have otherwise found their way into this edition.

The teachers, under the direction of Peter Kanere, who was of especial help, were Buren Ratieta, Eria Maerere, Mate Moaniba, and Terab'ata Groves.

The trainees: Mark Sebek, Patrick Fitzpatrick, Stephen Iwanski, Bart Deemer, Mary Jo Woland, Carmine Grasso, Margaret Corthell, Richard Corthell, Michael Herpel, Darcy Miller, Idelle McDonald, Herschell McDonald.

I am grateful also for the hospitality of the director of the training, Kenneth E. Knudson, and for the assistance of Anne and Terry Marshall, Co-Directors of Peace Corps for Kiribati and the Solomons.

August 1979

To The Learner

An Introduction to Language Learning

Congratulations to all of you who read this. First, congratulations for your acceptance into Peace Corps and second, congratulations for just performing a very complex act — reading a language. Of course, the language is English and that hardly seems like such a major accomplishment; after all, practically everybody you know can do it. For most of us, using English is like breathing, an involuntary activity, or if we consider it a skill, a skill that has become so natural to us that we have taken for granted the fact that it represents the major intellectual achievement of our lifetimes.

The point, of course, is not that the learning of English is in itself an especially significant accomplishment, but that the learning of a language in either or both its spoken and written forms is the great accomplishment. By being born as human beings we may be programmed to learn language just as we are programmed to walk on only two legs but despite our human inheritance, learning a language still requires time and energy. We don't just happen to learn a language; we do have to work at it, and other people — chiefly our parents, siblings and play mates — have to be willing to help.

Although you may no longer have memories of your early struggles to learn English, you can still appreciate the complexity of the accomplishment by considering this: Assume for the moment that you are about to start a language training program that will occupy you 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week for the next 3 to 5 years, without a break. At the end of your training program you will still not be able to understand radio programs or easily follow a conversation between two adults and practically all books will still seem to be filled with undecipherable squiggles. In fact., your knowledge of the written language will be so minimal that you will now have to enroll in a formal school for a consider able length of time and even after several years of formal schooling you will still be developing your language skills by learning new words, polishing your writing style and trying to read better. That is the sort of language program you enrolled in when you began to learn your native language, English.

All this is not intended to frighten you about the language learning task that lies ahead because learning a second language is going to be easier. Most of you have already encountered a second language and unless that encounter came early in your life while you were still very actively learning your first language, the second encounter was an encounter of a different kind. Some of you may have learned French or Spanish and learned it reasonably well in high school, while others have not had very successful experiences the second time around. Now, as an adult you are being asked to learn a new, second language. Learning a second language is no small task, but neither is it a matter of starting from scratch, as you did when you learned English. So before you take your first steps in your new language, we ask you to take the time to do two things: try to understand the nature of the task ahead of you and try to assess the personal strengths and weaknesses that you bring with you as you start your assignment.

What do you have to do to learn a new language? As you might expect, the answers to this question are as numerous and varied as people are and no two learners' strategies will be exactly the same. This is so important to remember, let's say it again in a different way: we can make many generalizations about the way people learn language, but you are unique and you can only learn in the way that suits you best, not in the way an idealized, generalized member of your species learns.

We have already said that learning a second language is going to be easier. It is going to be faster, too, because you already know a language and you will not have to reinvent one. To be sure, the language you are going to learn is very different from English and you may wonder just how much help your English is going to be. It would be easier, for example, if there were more cognates such as between English and the Germanic or Romance languages, but you already know a lot about languages and English in particular, and you can use that knowledge. You already know, for example, that languages have a two-part structure (subject and predicate) and you already know a great deal about what you can and cannot communicate with languages. You know how to do things such as rephrase a statement for a young child, use a new word in a sentence, ask for meanings, use gestures to reinforce language, and employ circumlocutions. In short, you have been involved in communication all your life and you are not changing to a new medium, you are just switching channels.

You still may not be convinced that learning a new language is easy; obviously it does require an effort and no one needs to tell you that some people have to make more of an effort than others. We have tried to encourage you to realize that your learning style will not be the same as your fellow students. If each of us were to draw a language profile of ourselves we would find that, our profiles, just like our personalities are different; strong and sharp in some areas, weak and ill-defined in others. The point, however, is not how strong or weak you may be — or how fast or slow you may be at learning languages — but rather that you should examine your own profile, find out where you are strong and weak and use that information to capitalize on your strengths and try to accept and even improve on your weaknesses. To help you begin your self-assessment as a language learner, we suggest you give some thought to the following aspects of language learning.

Memorizing. Are you good at memorizing? Obviously, learning a new language requires much more than memorizing a dictionary o:' that language, but having a good memory will help. The chief way in which it helps of course is in learning new words and phrases so that the right ones come quickly and easily to mind when you need them. When you store something in your mind for later use, put a "tag" on it; relate it to something that is already stored and accessible. When you first encounter a new word, explore it: hear it, say it, see it, feel it, even taste it if you can. Recycle your collection. In language learning, using a new expression once is usually not enough. And don't be discouraged if you forget things. Your mind can only handle so much at once and sometimes unused stuff gets thrown out to make room for new things, but even the forgotten words have probably left a trace so that the second time you learn them they may stay longer.

Being receptive. The new language may have some "funny" sounds. Its grammar may be organized differently from English. It may have words that do not translate easily into English and some English words and concepts may not have direct equivalents with the new language. Try to remember that English is only a language and your new language is a language in its own right.

Taking risks. Nearly everything you say will be a mistake and adults do not like to make mistakes, especially in front of other adults But learning a new language is as much a process of learning what not to say as it is learning what to say . You will have to develop some willingness to go out on a limb and try things and not be upset if the limb breaks.

Being relaxed. Trying too hard, and wanting too much to succeed — "pressing," as athletes say — can be a serious problem for a language learner. Sometimes the antidote is a good stiff drink, but there are others. What's yours?

Using the language. Another way of saying this is: practice makes perfect. The more you do something the better you get at it and this is especially true of learning a new skill such as a language. Obviously, one way in which you can get a lot of practice is by taking a full and active part in the classroom. But there are other people in the classroom too, and everybody can't speak at once. However, you can talk to yourself, both in the classroom and out. Subvocalization can be a very useful learning technique.

Being a good listener. Talking is only one communication skill and it's hard to listen when you're talking. But you can mouth somebody else's words and learn from their mistakes and successes as you listen.

Analyzing the new language. Being open and receptive to the new language will get you to first base, but you'll stand a better chance of getting to second (and eventually scoring) if you understand the rules of the game. Linguists make their money by analyzing chunks of language to discover the rules. You don't have to become a professional linguist to learn a language, but it's not a bad idea to become at least an amateur.

Mimicking. Parrots don't really speak languages, but since they don't have any preconceptions of how a language should sound, they do a reasonably good job of producing human sounds with limited equipment. You can already produce some human sounds but your repertoire is limited to the sounds that exist in English. Can you forget your English and become a parrot?

Empathizing. Being a good parrot may help you acquire the sounds of the new language, but languages are much more than just new sounds. Languages are also a way of ordering and organizing reality and the reality of a speaker of your new language may be somewhat different from the reality of an American. A new language brings with it a culture with its different life-styles and social roles. You may not like all that you find in the new culture, but that is all right. Probably some of the speakers of your new language don't like everything about their own culture, just as you probably don't admire every single aspect of American culture. Part of the thrill of learning a new language is experiencing life from a different perspective. You don't have to sell your soul to the new culture, but a willingness to become bicultural will speed up your efforts to become bilingual.

Being methodical (or developing a method to your madness.) Lots of things are going on when you start a new language. All the new sounds, words, and grammar rules, come at you simultaneously and can be overwhelming. There are text books, reference grammars, dictionaries, phrase books, workbooks and tapes containing things you ought to know. In the classroom there are memorization activities, drills, role-plays, free expression and a lot of people listening and watching what you do. Obviously you can't cope with everything simultaneously, and although this language course attempts to present the language in an orderly fashion and although part of your teacher's job is to minimize the confusion, you have to get yourself together too. Although much of your in-class time will be organized by the teacher and the material, you are the person who has the responsibility for organizing your out of class time.

Understanding and accepting your limitations. So far we have pointed out several things to consider as you and your new language confront each other. Learning a new language also involves a certain amount of self-confrontation. You are going to experience successes and failures, excitement and fatigue and countless other emotions. You may have to question your self-image as you compare your progress with your peers and you may seem to come off unfavorably so let us say again that you can only capitalize on your strengths, understand and try to improve your weaknesses and be willing to accept results that may not measure up to your aspirations.

Cooperating and supporting. Much of your schooling up to this point may have been in an atmosphere that was competitive. But in your struggle to learn a new language along with your peers, all those learning skills that helped you pass exams or write acceptable term papers won't be especially helpful in your new learning situation. You are all in the same boat together, and although some people may row faster or harder than you can, you'll go farther and longer as a team. Learning to help and be helped will create an atmosphere in the classroom that will make learning an enjoyable and unforgettable communal experience. And remember too that using a language is a social activity. It takes one to speak and another to listen, whether you're learning the language or using it in fluent conversation.

Now that we have asked you to think about language learning and yourself as a language learner, here's another suggestion that will be well worth the time you put into it. Periodically, issue yourself a "report card" using the topics we have discussed (we have provided a form on the next page). Beside each topic write a few remarks about how you think you're doing. It would also be useful to show your report to a friend or a teacher for their reactions. Do reports at least at the end of the first, third and fifth week of training.

Language Learning Self-Evaluation

Name____________________________ Date_______________ Week#__________.

Being receptive:
Taking risks:
Being relaxed:
Using the language:
Being a good listener:
Analyzing the language:
Being methodical:
Understanding and accepting limitations:
Cooperating and supporting:

The Purpose and Design of the
Peace Corps Language Handbooks Series

When you use a language you are using a linguistic medium to convey a message. When you learn a new language you are learning to convey new messages on a different channel. Language learning, then, requires you to learn in two dimensions : the medium and the message. At times, your attention may be focused on the medium — for example, when you try to put the verb in its past tense form, and at times you may be groping for the words that will convey your message. Another way of looking at it is to say that in learning and using a language you are constantly asking yourself "What do I say?" and "How do I say it?"

This material purposefully separates these two dimensions of language learning to allow you to concentrate your attention either or, the message or the medium.

The Communication and Culture Handbook focuses on what to say. It presents a number of situations in which you will need certain phrases and words in order to do something. It fulfills a function not unlike that of a traveler's phrase book. Obviously, you will also have to deal with linguistic matters while you are trying to accomplish something. For example, you may have learned the appropriate expression for asking a person for the time, but you may find it expedient to learn other related linguistic features such as how to use the negative to say "I don't have the time" or how to use other pronouns so you can ask if "he or she has the time." But the overriding purpose of Communication and Culture is to establish classroom activities that require you to exchange messages (communicate) in a way that is appropriate to the context (culture).

The purpose of the Grammar Handbook is to help you focus your attention on matters such as how to form the past tense or make nouns and adjectives agree or put a string of words together in the proper order. The Grammar Handbook is a kind of grammar book that through explanation, example and practice activities will help you assimilate the linguistic system that holds together the words and phrases of your new language.

Used together, The Communication and Culture Handbook and the Grammar Handbook are two complementary approaches to a basic mastery of the language. You may find that you are more comfortable and successful with one set than with the other, but once again, let us remind you that everyone learns differently. This language course, by taking these two approaches allows you to capitalize on your strengths. It should be pointed out, however, that it would not be wise to neglect either book. If you studied only with Communication and Culture you might eventually become quite fluent (and colloquial) but ungrammatical — like the Latin American baseball player who learned his English in the Cleveland Indians' dugout. If you learned only from The Grammar Handbook you might become very knowledgeable about the grammar of the language and even able to read literature but unable to ask a policeman for directions to the nearest bus stop.

The two books together will allow you to get a good basis in the language, but there will continue to be special cultural and work situations where your general knowledge is insufficient. You will not be able to meet all the requirements of living and working in your new culture in the short space of two years. Even now, there are situations in English where you are probably inadequate. For example, could you comprehend a lecture on nuclear physics? or two surfers in California discussing the surfing conditions? a Wall Street report? a tobacco auction? The Special Skills Handbook introduces you to some of the special situations where, in the role of a Peace Corps Volunteer, you might be expected to function. The Special Skills Handbook is a kind of almanac of miscellaneous information about the culture and the special work and living requirements of Peace Corps Volunteers. We have tried to anticipate your needs, but our attempt will never be sufficiently comprehensive. You will probably find that you will need to construct some of your own word lists. You may become interested in investigating the jargon of a special field, such as fishing or you may find it necessary to learn the dialect variations of your village or province. Your suggestions for any improvements or corrections of these volumes are welcome.


Kiribati ~ Gilbert Islands ~ Gilbertese (?!)

On July 12, 1979, the Gilbert Islands Colony became the independent Republic of Kiribati. Kiribati is the native pronunciation and spelling of Gilberts. While the main group of sixteen islands will continue to be called the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati will encompass the entire country, including the Phoenix and Line Islands and Banaba (Ocean Island).

The name of the language will also be Kiribati. This effects no change at all on native speakers, who refer to their land as 'Kiribati', their language as 'te taetae ni Kiribati' (the language of the Gilberts), and a Gilbertese (person) as an 'I Kiribati'. It is only for outsiders speaking their own language that problems occur. For example, are these Kiribati lessons or Gilbertese lessons? Will it matter to an I Kiribati / Gilbertese one way or the other? Time will tell.

Note on the spelling. As these lessons are intended for the use of foreigners learning to speak Kiribati, certain conventions have been employed in the spelling to assist in finding the correct pronunciation, which are not in common use. For the most part the differences are in the area of vowel length, which is generally not indicated in writing, but which is shown in these books as a doubled letter, indicating that the sound is held longer than the usual one beat. (see Grammar Lesson 1)

Kiribati page

© 1979, 2003, 2010 Stephen Trussel, ACTION / Peace Corps, The Experiment in International Living