I was born and raised in Hawaii and grew up speaking Pidgin. My parents are from Washington and California so at home I spoke [what I thought was] Standard English. I moved to the mainland when I was 18, in 1996, and have come to speak English with almost no detection of my Pidgin roots (except when I say words like "Hawai`i", "Samoan", "ukulele"). I can speak it with very little effort, but there is still some effort, I catch myself analyzing my words milliseconds before I say them. It feels like a second language that I have learned to speak natively. I have been out of practice with my Pidgin so I can't just jump in and sound local at any moment, but if I talk to my siblings on the phone or go back to Hawaii to visit, it only takes a few minutes before I slide back into partial Pidgin and a couple days before I am back to my old self.

When I am speaking Pidgin, I feel like it just comes out of me without any effort, like that is the way I think in my head. When my brothers and our families are together we can "Code Switch" effortlessly between ourselves and the rest of our family without any problems, but will always go back to Pidgin with our siblings.

Something I have wondered for a while is why Pidgin is so much easier to speak for us. I have decided it is one of 2 options: Either it is because we grew up speaking it (but we also spoke English), or because pidgins and creoles are just designed to be closer to how we think just by the nature of their origins. But, then again, English was a pidgin that became a creole and standardized into a language so you would think that because it followed the same process, it too would be just as easy to speak. And, yes, Hawaiian Pidgin has a wrong way to speak it! You can't just throw out the rules and say words in a random order throwing in a few Polynesian words for flavor. Kids come from the mainland all the time and fail miserably attempting to speak Pidgin.

Are there any linguists here that would have a "real" explanation why it is easier to speak Pidgin even though I have been speaking English on the mainland now longer than I lived in Hawaii?

  • Thank you for the link you provided. I've read the Wikipedia page with interest, and now I'm looking forward to reading any answer which may be supplied.
    – Paola
    Jul 11, 2012 at 1:23
  • I'm confused by the phrase "...at home I spoke [what I thought was] Standard English" What was the actual language primarily spoken at home (particularly before you first went to school)?
    – Tolerance72
    Jul 11, 2012 at 2:47
  • 4
    I don't claim to be a linguist, but I'd have thought fairly obviously the reason you think it's easier to speak Hawaiian Pidgin than "Standard English" is because that's what you grew up with. Jul 11, 2012 at 2:51
  • @Tolerance72 - Because my parent spoke English I felt that my English was "standard". We spent a year in Idaho and the first few months people kept saying that they couldn't understand me.
    – BillyNair
    Jul 11, 2012 at 3:28
  • Just to let you know, I've spoken to the mods on Linguistics, and they'd be happy to take the question if you edit it a bit to lessen the focus on this specific case and make it a bit more general (no need to over-generalize, but a little bit would be nice, so I understand).
    – waiwai933
    Jul 11, 2012 at 21:03

3 Answers 3


Most native speakers of English grow up speaking some variety of the language other than Standard English. In your case it happens to have been a pidgin, which is a little special, but I don’t suppose your case is really much different from those who grow up speaking southern US English, Caribbean English or the English of the north-east of England known as Geordie. The dialect we learn first will usually be the one we feel most comfortable with and Standard English may seem like a foreign language, although its differences from non-standard varieties are not that great.

It’s not surprising that few people grow up speaking Standard English, because it is predominantly a written form of the language. It may to that extent be a minority dialect, but it’s an extremely important one politically, economically and socially. For that reason those who want to make their way in an English-speaking world need to learn it. But many English speakers may want to retain their native dialects and to use them with their family and friends, keeping Standard English for writing and for those occasions where a more formal spoken language is required. There’s nothing unusual about such an arrangement. For many people in the world being bilingual, or even multilingual, is the norm.

  • 2
    Actually, the language called "pidgin" in Hawai'i is a creole, and thus a real (though infant) language. Otherwise, you're right on the money, Barrie.
    – jlawler
    Jul 11, 2012 at 14:35
  • I'm curious to know about this curious 'Standard English' and who grows up speaking it? Jul 14, 2012 at 13:08
  • @Gaston Ümlaut: Then take a look here: phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/standard.htm Jul 14, 2012 at 14:00
  • In his paper there, Trudgill claims that the national standard Englishes of the world can be treated as forming a single dialect 'Standard English' (despite his recognition that they are quite different). As a speaker of Standard Australian English (SAE) I hear all varieties from UK and USA (and SA, NZ, etc) as distinctly different from each other and from SAE. Written English of course is different. Jul 15, 2012 at 2:05

I am not a linguist, but perhaps I could share some useful insight as someone who works in the field of human language technology (HLT), specifically making the machine to understand human languages.

From my experience, we don't use the prescriptive grammar (the one that dictates good composition and style) when we think; the same applies to speaking, which is mainly spontaneous. The prescriptive grammar comes into play when we write, or give a formal public speech, where we have enough time to reflect our thoughts and to rephrase our words appropriately.

The natural grammar in our brains is very flexible, and can vary from one person to another, even within the same dialect. In my opinion, this natural grammar is developed in our brains in our childhood and finally imprinted as we grown up. It is also possible that we can have more than one set of such a natural grammar, if we grown up in a multi-cultural environment. And pretty much like swimming, once the grammar, no matter how many languages in total, has been imprinted to your brain, you will never forget it.

I myself was raised in the south of Thailand until I was five, and I never forget how to say the southern dialect. But similar to you, I have to use a little effort to speak in that dialect, or it might just come out the wrong way.

Hope this is useful.


The answer is probably that pidgin and creole languages are easier to learn. First, they tend to be not especially complicated formally: you are not going to find a pidgin/creole language with multiple tone levels, scores of obstruent consonants, or Iroquoian-style inflectional paradigms. Second, and probably just as importantly, a pidgin/creole doesn't really belong to anyone, so there is little resistance to outsiders using it, and it is not a turnoff when a novice speaks it badly. In the specific personal history of the OP, however, there is no guarantee that this applies.

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