Learning a local PNG dialect

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
IN last week’s article, I offered you some tips on learning a foreign language.
In this week’s article, I will offer you a few tips on learning a local PNG dialect, or any other in our region.

Use Google Translate appropriately
As I was fixing up this article, I remembered what I said in last week’s item where I urged you to use Google Translate as a tool to help you learn a foreign language.
The app is very useful but do not run to it without actually doing your studies, as in going over your words and phrases as well as rules in using tenses in that language you are studying.
What I mean is, master the concepts in your studies (as in using YouTube videos or with a tutor) in using the correct form of the verbs and nouns, but go to Google Translate to crosscheck that sentence you have written for an assignment or exercise.
When I was helping 13 year olds learn the basics in French two years ago, I had this inkling that a few of them ran to Google Translate to complete a simple composition where they were to write a small piece like this, in French:
My name is Joe.
I am 13 years old and live in Port Moresby.
I live with my mother and my father.
I have two brothers and one sister.
We have a dog. Its name is Whisky.
I like ice cream, chocolate and football.
I noticed that a few of the students were not using the words and phrases learned in class. It seemed they went to Google Translate and typed the whole passage into the app and copied the translation that the app provided.
If you do that, you will not really master the concepts that you are learning in your lessons.
A tutor will teach you sufficient concepts before s/he asks you to compose a translation. The composition part must be done by you with you referring to your notes and textbook to structure the sentences correctly.
Running to Google Translate (or other apps like that) for a fast translation without you exerting any effort will not help you master the concepts that you are learning.

Something about PNG and languages
Are you aware that we are living in a land that is rich with local dialects?
Yes, our country is rich because of our diverse cultures.
As records have it, we have about 850 different languages right here in our country.
And then, we have three languages listed as official in our country – English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu.
Think about the other countries we interact with – they have possibly a few local dialects and labelled only one as their official language.
Many years ago, a friend who is an anthropologist, told me something interesting about the field of anthropology, the study of humans and human behaviour and societies in the past and present.
He said some of the anthropologists who shaped the field actually did their field studies here in Papua New Guinea, like Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands and Margaret Mead in East Sepik, Manus and East New Britain.
I have met and discussed themes with an American anthropologist who, with her family, had once lived with the Maring people of Simbai, in Madang, back in the 1950s.
Almost 20 years ago, I also met a German student who was visiting Wewak, in East Sepik. She told me she was an anthropology student and I am sure she may one day (if not yet) study a people group in our nation.
Such experiences have taught me that PNG is a fertile field for studies in anthropology.
With my working with a few languages, I have realised that we in PNG are living in a fertile field for studies in linguistics too. (Linguistics is the study of languages and their structure.)

Knowledge of languages vital
The knowledge of languages is vital in some fields.
Sure, students of linguistics will always be excited by languages, however there is a demand for people who work with languages, including unknown dialects.
Let me share with you two fields that the knowledge of local dialects may help.
Firstly, more than 10 years ago, I learned about the field of cryptography (or cryptology). It involves encrypting or coding messages or information and decoding them when they are needed.
This is currently big business in computer technology and security systems.
Cryptography combines knowledge and skills in languages and mathematics.
There are exercises in high school maths textbooks where students are taught something on coding and decoding messages, and possibly in time more concepts are going to be included to help prepare our young people for the future.
When the 2018 FIFA World Cup was staged, I was commenting on social media about my favourite team as well as a chance for people travelling to Russia to learn some words or phrases in Russian.
A few days later, I got a message from my Facebook account that someone in Russia tried get into it from there. And, that caught my attention: I still remembered the reports about the US presidential polling where Russians were accused of influencing the system.
Was it likely that someone in Russia was trying to hack into my social network account?
Possibly.
Fortunately, nothing came of it and I think even if he was a hacker and going after my password, it was unlikely that he would have got the right combination because my password is in a local PNG dialect.
That is one thing I have urged my friends and colleagues to do: Create your passwords of your email address or social network accounts in a local PNG dialect and you will make it impossible for hackers to figure that out.
If your passwords are in English, the probability of your account being hacked is higher.
Secondly, one day, knowledge of local dialects can help in completing a screenplay of a blockbuster feature film, as Avatar by James Cameron.
Which language did the indigenous species of Na’vi communicated among themselves in the 2009 Cameron film speak? English? French?
No, the language used, Na’vi, was constructed or invented by emeritus linguistics professor Paul Frommer. (Incidentally, Frommer studied mathematics for his bachelor’s degree but then later switched to linguistics.)
Did you watch The Interpreter, the 2005 feature film, which had Nicole Kidman playing Silvia Broome, an interpreter working in the United Nations?
In helping carrying out an investigation, Broome had to use her knowledge of Ku, a local language spoken in a fictional African nation of Matobo.
Ku itself is invented, borrowing knowledge from existing African languages.
Those two examples show how knowledge of local languages can help the making of a blockbuster movie, as in Avatar and The Interpreter.

Tips on learning a local dialect
1. Find a good tutor.
I was fortunate to have a good grounding in Motu because my late step-mother, who spoke Pure Motu, was a very good teacher.
Even when she texted me on the phone, she did so in Motu.
2. Start with basic greetings words.
As with any other language, work on the greeting words and phrases first.
Try to sound them correctly from the very first lesson.
3. Get a lot of practice.
The best way is to live among the people who speak it – or visit them regularly to take in the sounds and tones of the language into your accent.
People from abroad who come to our nation and learn our local dialects, like Bible translators, live with the people whose language they are studying. In that way, they hear the language being used and they use it on a daily basis. That is priceless in learning a local dialect.
4. Find a Bible in that language.
Some of our local dialects have the Bible translated into them.
Use that as a text to consolidate the structure. When I was learning Motu with my step-mother, I bought a Hiri Motu Bible and read it. My favourite story was in the book of Jonah. The translation was well done and I enjoyed it without asking anyone to help interpret for me.
5. Get involved with people.
Go to their church service. Go to their weddings.
Be involved to learn about their culture too.
Learning a language should include learning about other aspects of the people who speak it.
6. Work on composing your lines.
The exercise like the introduction done by 13 year olds learning French could be something that you can try to do after a few months of working with the dialect.
That composition is standard for any student anywhere in the world learning a foreign language.

Learning and using a Pacific dialect
If you plan to go work or visit a Pacific Island nation, try to learn a few words and phrases of the local language spoken there before actually setting foot in that country.
Countries like Fiji, Tonga, Nauru or Samoa have a common local dialect that they use everywhere, in some cases more so than English. (I found out lately that Samoan is also available on Google Translate.)
Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have their own form of Tok Pisin (Pidgin) and therefore knowledge of a local dialect may not be of use, unless you are going to a particular island or area.
I was privileged to have met Wallisians (people of the French territory Wallis and Futuna) in the past few years, firstly in New Caledonia in 2012 and then in Wallis in 2013.
The little time that I interacted with some of them and from my own research online, where I found a French-Wallisian dictionary, have enabled me to learn the greeting words in their language.
During the 2015 Pacific Games, I was taken on to work as a volunteer, actually as a team attaché) by the organising committee of the Games.
One of the things I did when their first two senior officials arrived a week before the actual games started was meeting them and getting them settled in Port Moresby.
In our first meeting, I greeted the two officials in Wallisian, in their own local dialect. (I was like their wantok living in PNG.)
They were stunned and happy, to say the least.
It made their arrival special, I think.
With that, I end these articles on learning a language, whether it is foreign or local.
As you can see, learning languages can be useful and can be a skill that we can utilise to help others as well.

  •  Next week: Walking is good for the body. Thomas Hukahu is a freelance writer.

Leave a Reply