Learning by picture

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

Almost all the languages in the world that do not have a translation of the Bible do not have a dictionary or other books or resources. So learning one of those languages is not a matter of enrolling in a class, buying a piece of software or getting a book, as one might to learn Spanish or Chinese. So, what does a missionary do? Well, it’s not exactly easy but people have developed a number of techniques that help a lot.

This photo illustrates one technique: draw a picture or take a photo of something, then have someone tell you the names of the various parts of it. This works for lots of things: the body, houses, tools, plants, animals, countryside scenes, etc. Then you write the words on the drawing or on the photo. The drawing or photo also makes the words easier to remember, and certainly a lot more fun to review!

What if the language does not have an alphabet? No problem! Spend a little time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has a letter for every sound made in human speech. Hint: Ask a linguist or Bible translator and they can tell you what part of the IPA to learn and which you can ignore for the country where the language is. Or, you can just invent new letters for “strange” sounds.

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

You can add internal organs, as for this drawing in the Mayogo language of Congo. Or, you can break the picture down too. So from the body you can move to just the hand and get all the parts: fingernails, knuckles, thumb, finger, index finger, little finger, and so on. This works great for getting family relationships straight. Make a friend and take some photos of his family. Then you can get the words for brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, and so on.

This method also allows you to discover how people look at the world. For example, the foot and lower leg might have the same name. Or there might be a different word for older brother and another for younger brother. These differences show up more quickly and clearly when working with a drawing or photos.

If you want, you can take this a step further. The local person you are working with might have to get the hang of it at first, but you can point to something on the photo or drawing and ask; What do you do with this? So in answer to “What do you do with a hand?”, you might get wave, stir, shake hands, carry, give, take and so on.

Best, when local people get the hang of what you are doing, you can turn it into a game. Have fun, connect with people, show their language and culture respect while learning it!

 

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Hi – Fine

Supermarket in NairobiOne day in Kenya at the grocery store, I said, “Hello,” to the bag boy. He responded, “Fine”.  In Swahili. which is widely spoken in Kenya, you greet someone by saying, “Habari,” which can be translated “How are you?” The response is, “Mzuri,” meaning “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the bag boy was hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with the meaning of “Mzuri”.  This is called interference. It happens when a person transposes the meanings and structures of his language onto another.  Sometimes, the results can be hilarious.

When learning French, Dayle tried to say, “I’m full,” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was stranger when I made the same mistake.  We have stories of similar mistakes so embarrassing I can’t write them here.

Language map of Burkina Faso

Language Map of Burkina Faso (click to enlarge)

Learning the Cerma (pronounced “CARE – muh”) language in a rural location in Burkina Faso, many years ago, had lots of such moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone when I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter.   One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around us.  That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for us. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits our egos take do not cause us to give up.

Interference can happen in hidden ways..  There are two words for peanuts in French – cacahouettes and arachides.  One day in the Congolese town of Isiro, I asked someone to get me some cacahouettes.  He went into town and returned much later saying  he Fruit seller at roadside standcould not find any.  That was impossible.  Peanuts are common.  Everyone grows them and they are for sale everywhere, just like the locally-grown fruit at this roadside stand in Ghana.  After discussion I figured out that in that area cacahouettes means packaged or canned peanuts.  The poor fellow had gone looking for packaged peanuts in what was essentially a ghost town because of the war.  It was an impossible mission.  He had to go back to buy locally grown, unprocessed arachides and that only took him a few minutes.  I have had enough such experiences to wonder how much of any message gets across when it is given in a second language.

Even I have to admit that my language mistakes are pretty funny, although sometimes not for ten years .

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Hello – Fine

Today I said “Hello” to the bag boy at the grocery store. He responded “Fine”. That is not an unusual response here, although it is typically those will less education who say it.

In Swahili you greet someone by saying “Habari”, which can be translated “How are you?” The response is “Muzuri” meaning, “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the person is hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with a truncated translation of “Muzuri”.

This is called “interference”. It happens when a person from a certain language is learning another language and transposes the meanings and structures of his language on the language he is learning – sometimes with funny results and other times with disastrous results.

When learning French Dayle tried to say “I’m full” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was very strange when I made the same mistake.

Learning language in a rural location in Burkina Faso many years ago had lots of similar moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning the local language, Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone present whenever I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter.

One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around you. That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for me. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits your ego takes in language learning do not cause you to give up. Beside, even I had to admit that that my language mistakes were pretty funny, although not until 10 years later.

(This was originally posted on a different blog. It was republished here in March 2012.)