Sunday, September 21, 2014

Are you in or out?

This village was home to the debater's club! photo by Susie Pederson
Old men, teeth stained black from years of chewing buai (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.

I glanced across the room at my teammates, and raised an eyebrow. Hanna gave me a small grin. I have no idea what they’re talking about either.

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.”

Does the village name belong inside or outside the red yarn circle? photo by Susie Pederson

Everyone loved to be involved! photo by Susie Pederson

While Hanna, Susie, Rebekah, and I were in Gulf Province for three weeks this past August, one of our goals was to conduct a limited-goals survey through several languages. We wanted to clarify several dialect boundaries and the extent of local language use within the village. Not only would this information be useful for directing Bible translation and literacy projects in the future, but surveys like this are valuable for language research, documentation, and encouraging communities to think critically about their own languages.

Each of us had a different job to do. Mine was to note "unofficial" comments among the crowd. photo by Susie Pederson
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, game-like activities create visual representations that invite discussion from all community members, often drawing huge crowds, while allowing the outside facilitators--me and my teammates-- to fade into the background.

The activities were easily led by community leaders. photo by Susie Pederson

This activity was a lot of fun and could easily demonstrate language relationships between villages. photo by Susie Pederson

For example, in the “stoplight” activity described above, putting a village in the red circle indicates that their language is difficult for the community to understand. If a village name is placed in the green circle, then they speak exactly like the community doing the activity. A village name in the yellow circle means they speak differently from the community, but are still understandable. Outside the red circle is not understandable at all.

(Since we had Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and American English represented on the team, we often would use us as an example. For me, this would mean that the US and Canada would fit in my green circle, but Australia and New Zealand would find themselves in my yellow circle (and maybe even ya'll from the US Deep South). I'd put South African or Singaporian English into my red circle and other languages, like German or Swedish would be outside entirely.)

This activity involves photos and string to help the community represent what language a person from one age group might use when speaking to someone of a different age. photo by Susie Pederson
This activity tries to show which languages people use in different church activities with colored chips representing different languages. photo by Susie Pederson

Despite their great pride in their language and identity, many villages haven’t ever thought about it much, and discussions often lasted long after the yarn and pictures were packed away.

photo by Susie Pederson
photo by Susie Pederson
After all the discussion was exhausted and the questions silenced, Hanna pointed to the completed activity. “Are you happy with this?” she asked. “Do you feel this is correct?” Everyone, including the old woman with the necklace of shiny gold beads, nodded their assent. “Yes,” they grinned at each other. “This is us. This is our language!”