In the red circle

Listening carefully
Listening carefully

Old men, teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nut, gesticulated wildly amid the shouting, as the young nursing mothers chimed in with a few choice comments, and children mumbled their opinions through mouthfuls of sugarcane. The young men pretending to be bored crowded in close, before one of them burst out in a passionate tirade. Over thirty people were shouting at once in Urama language, until the entire open air shelter shook under the vehemence.

Suddenly, the whole group dropped into silence, and the most animated leaned back against the roof supports with satisfaction. One man stepped forward to where Hanna was waiting and calmly pointed to a laminated label. “This village,” he enunciated in English, “belongs in our red circle.”

Hanna and her team were conducting a limited-goals survey through several languages in Gulf Province, hoping to discover dialect boundaries and the extent of local language use. Not only would this information be useful for directing Bible translation and literacy projects, but surveys are valuable for language research, documentation, and encouraging communities to think critically about their own languages.

Since 2010, survey in PNG has been utilizing specialized activities, which differ from the more confrontational and potentially invasive old survey techniques of questionnaires. These new, colourful, fun game-like activities invite discussion from all community members (often drawing huge crowds), allow the outside facilitator to fade into the background, and create a visual representation of the discussion. (In the “stoplight” activity described above, putting a village in the “red circle” indicates that their language is difficult for the community to understand.)

Despite their great pride in their language and identity, many villages haven’t ever analysed it at length such that discussions often lasted long after the yarn and pictures were packed away. Hanna pointed to the completed activity. “Are you happy with this?” she asked. Everyone, including the old woman bent under necklaces of shiny gold beads, nodded their assent. “Yes,” they grinned at each other. “This is us. This is our language!”

Finding villages
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