Culture events are one of the big ideas that we use as missionaries to learn language. Getting a notebook out and asking someone to list off every verb they can think of might help you learn a few verbs, but it’ll be hard to remember. If instead we experience a culture event which could be a wedding, but it’s also as small as greeting someone on the trail, or washing the dishes – our language learning has an immediate physical context.

Using language to speak about something in the abstract requires a firm grasp of a language and so as learners we want to ground our language learning in the concrete of the here and now of a culture event. We can ask “What’s that?”, “What are you doing?” and “Tell me about this” and by doing so we limit the scope of the language we’ll receive in response. Our language helper won’t be talking about this, that and everything but about the things right in front of you that you’ve just been interacting with.

If language fails you, you can always pull out your phone…

If a culture event involves something physical it’s even better; our brains hold onto language better when our other senses have been involved and it’s not just abstract nouns, verbs and adjectives.

Hence to help our ITF students (young people who have come to PNG for a 6 week taster of missions) in their study of Tok Pisin we took them to the village of Bilbil.

Bilbil is a famous little PNG village. Historically they made and traded clay pots to other language groups for food, being well known and respected in the region for it. With the introduction of steel cooking pots to PNG the need for clay pots has dropped off to almost nil and the village of Bilbil have turned their ancestral tradition into a tourist experience. Resorts put together cultural experience packages and tourists from all ovr will come to Bilbil to see a demonstration of how the pots were made and get the opportunity to buy some.

The ladies demonstrate the whack it with a stick method of pottery

We signed our students up for the experience, but with a twist. Our students would be using it as an opportunity to learn and practice Tok Pisin. Notebooks, cameras and voice recorders were all whipped out during the demonstration as our students tried to glean some new language. After only 2 weeks in country now they are still learning basic language but this is exactly the sort of culture event they need to get involved in to learn more.

It’s not hard to get into conversations here 🙂

After the demonstration students split up to have a go themselves (only the women are allowed to try it of course!) and find people to get into conversation with so they can learn language. They were amazed how friendly and talkative people are here. One of PNGs many blessings is that people love to take the time to sit and talk with you; which is ideal for language learners!

Students had a go at making their own pots

It was my 2nd time to Bilbil. I’d been before when we first arrived in PNG. It’s tempting to think of a culture event as ‘done’, been there, done that, got the language. NTM declared me capable high level of language proficiency in Tok Pisin 2 years ago; but you can always learn more. Culture is an enormous intertwined web and I got the opportunity to investigate areas I couldn’t have 3 years ago. Mostly I was on hand as a translator for when conversations ground to a halt, or exploded into long, detailed expositions.

I had some really good discussions with students about how to ask good questions. They started noticing 2 things: 1 that no one would correct them if they misspoke the language and 2 that often people didn’t answer the question they were asked. The issue with the 2nd one was that the intent of the question was often misunderstood. A simple question like “how long does it take to make a pot?” was a minefield in that regard, since no one makes just one pot – they’re done in batches, by groups of ladies and the conception of time is fuzzier here. “It can be done in a few days” was their best answer to the how-long-does-it-take question. 🙂

Categories: EnglishStanley


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