Learning new words the hard way

Learning new words
Learning new words

Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea – Written by Sue Pfaff with Tim Scott

It doesn’t take much more than a log, a pencil, and a notebook to get started, but the adventure of making new discoveries never seems to end. Imagine learning a language without textbooks – because there are none. As “outsiders”, Jerry and Sue Pfaff wanted to help the people who speak the Nali language of Manus Island, PNG, to translate their mother tongue and develop their language. But they had to start like children just learning to speak: hearing, mimicking, repeating – making mistakes and receiving correction. In the early days, it was not uncommon for Jerry to find people, sit down with them on a log, and begin eliciting Nali words and phrases to record phonetically in his notebook.

Building a vocabulary from those pages was one thing, but discovering phonetic and grammatical patterns from the lists of data brought greater excitement. The Nali language came alive to them and, like a scientist analyzing new information, Jerry would stare at his notes and discover innate grammatical rules in this language.

It has been observed that some of the most common sounds and words in a language are often the easiest to mispronounce and lead to the most embarrassing mistakes! Sue experienced this early in those language-learning days. She thought she said the common farewell expression to a visitor – “You go, okay?” The consonants collided like vehicles in an accident, and the words “You eat dung” escaped from her mouth instead! Fortunately a Nali friend nearby quickly stopped her from embarrassing herself further!

The Nali people were gracious during those days of language learning, while translation seemed a distant dream. However, the Pfaffs learned that language learning itself is ministry. By learning Nali, Jerry and Sue demonstrated that not only did they value the Nali language, but ultimately God values these people and their mother tongue too.

Many years have passed since they first learned to say “Ndroulang!” (“Good Morning!”) Yet new language discoveries still occur every time they sit down at the translation table. The adventure goes on.


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