It feels good to finish a day of language learning. The morning starts with planning, thinking about “what new bit of language am I going to go after today, and what should I practise speaking about?” Usually that’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up as I’m groggily pulling myself out of sleep.

After breakfast those thoughts go down in a notebook and a checklist gets made. Recordings to get, questions to ask, new sentences to try out, stories to practise telling and data to sift through and organise on the computer.
I like to cross the list off as I go through the day, not because it’s satisfying to do so but because while chatting away to Kovol friends there are inevitably stretches of silence as whatever we were doing winds up. It’s nice to glance at my book and remind myself of something else I can launch into.

The morning consists of 3-4 hours of finding people, hanging out for a bit and then working through my ‘language for the day’ list.

Me and Yagil got tired of the ‘language for the day’ list and so we made a pot of tea instead

After lunch I get a chance to take the new recordings, photos and notes I just took and file them away in the computer. Recordings get added to a playlist, dictionary entries are updated and new language learning materials are made.
I could probably sit at my computer for the next 2 days chewing on the data I just got – but that’s not the way to learn language. As soon as it’s filed away and before the deep analysis starts it’s time to grab my bag and hat and head out the door again for another practice session or to follow up on something I’ve noticed I didn’t catch.

3:30 rolls around and my time-sheet strikes 7 hours and it’s time for me to take all 3 kids off Gerdine’s hands so she can have a crack at something language-wise.

That’s a general rundown of our day. Some days involve lots of hiking but most are either right outside our house or 10-20 minutes hike away. The Kovol people are still keen to teach us language and so often I don’t have to go far.
At the end of the first day it feels pretty good. There are new things you can say, new things you’ve discovered and you know you’re moving step by step towards language fluency.

The problem is you have to do it again the next day, and then the day after that, and the one after that. Eventually the weekend hits and you can do chores instead 😀 Bush houses always need something to be fixed or improved!

A month into it and fatigue is setting in. It’s taking willpower to get out of bed in the mornings now because my brain is once again thinking up new language things to do. Yesterday Thursday rolled around and Gerdine and I planned some time to finally hang out together, but our brains are mush and bed at 8pm sounds like the best plan ever 😀
We’re wondering what it is exactly we need to do to get better energised – spending fewer evenings working, taking naps, taking extra days off or what. But I just feel that if I take time of language learning I don’t get to rest more, I just get time for extract chores.

Our pig (with spots) and his best buddy

If you’re worrying about us don’t get too alarmed yet. We’re still figuring out our schedule and tempo and we’re open to making the changes we need to make it work; we just haven’t figured it out yet.

It’s hard work, all this language-learning stuff – but progress is being made.

Our team agreed on a Kovol alphabet for example. There are still a few things we’re not sure about and we’re open to tweaking later – but we can stop typing phonetics! Phonetic typing is a pain because for example one of our vowels is ɔ, for which we have to hit o and then >.
We’ve started “words of the week”. Someone on the team gets to pick 10 Kovol words and we all have a go at spelling each word in the new alphabet. We’ve got 10 minutes in our team meeting to discuss the words and those that we agree on have a new standardised spelling. This week was the first time we tried and we agreed on 8/10 of the words, leaving 2 to sit on the list forever (or until Rhett learns to spell house properly haha!).

Showing off our new alphabet to some of our literate Kovol friends (literacy in the national language is around 5% or so) we’ve had some good results.
o seems to work for ɔ (the o in office)
oo seems to work for o (the o in only)

Likewise we have e and ee.
nn seems to work for ŋ (the ng in sing), and that means we can use ng for ᵑg (a g with nasal sound before it).
We’ve found no problems so far with using b for all the b and v sounds.

It seems that it’s not natural for the Kovol language to ever have consonants go together and so we’ve suggested inserting a u where we need to to keep w’s away from u’s. So twɔ our word for grasshopper is becoming tuwo.
That’s where however we just don’t know. The distribution data we have strongly suggests that it’s the case that consonants don’t go together, but they could. It all depends on what ‘feels’ right to a Kovol speaker and of course we have no idea! So we’re keeping an eye on that one.

Perhaps the trickiest symbol to navigate is for the ʔ, which is the sound you make when you catch your breath saying uh-oh. For our dialect of the Kovol language it’s required to write that sound (or lack of sound as we probably think of it). It also seems to be a straight swap in the other dialect so that they put a k whenever this sound comes up.

Using a k for that sound would fit perfectly for the other dialect of course, but we feel that there’s resistance to it in our dialect. They don’t want to use the k because that’s their dialect, and of course k is k in the national alphabet too.
So we’re after something to split the difference. For now we’re trying out an apostrophe. The problem we’re starting to see as we all start typing is that different software and language settings on computers produce the apostrophe differently.

As we were showing this to some people a suggestion came to use an h. One of the villages seems to use h already as their symbol for that sound, and it makes perfect sense for words like work “mehamonn”. It does look a little funny at the start of a word though, and will the other dialect be able to replace it with a ‘k’ effortlessly when they read out loud?

Lots of questions, but it’s progress!

Incidentally that means we’re thinking of spelling Kovol as ‘obol… so I guess we need a new website address (meh, let’s not).

Ant nest in a kindle, who’d have thought?

Also this week my kindle broke. After our only being here for a month ants decided to nest inside it. It turns out ants can press the screen as they walk past the capacitive sensors, meaning my kindle behaved as though several toddlers were tapping all over the screen whenever I tried to read it.
Unfortunately in the process of taking it apart to get rid of the ants I sheared off one of the sensors, killing the whole screen.
…. ah well, life in the bush! I’ll just ‘borrow’ Gerdine’s kindle.

1 Comment

Lois S. · 06/05/2022 at 10:43 pm

SO interesting! I love hearing about the various linguistic things you need to figure out. I never knew that the glottal stop was written as K or H sometimes. At least that is what it sounds like to me so far. There is also a very guttural sound that is written as KH or just H in other languages. (Think Hebrew “hesed” or “chesed.”) But as I understand it, this is different. It is interesting to hear about how that affects the spelling of the name of the people group, also!

Leave a Reply