One of the areas our language evaluation highlighted as needing some attention is our culture file. We use a cultural outline that breaks culture into just over 100 subcategories. Examples include:

  • 1-6 Fire, power and electricity
  • 1-11 Clothing and adornment
  • 2-3 Sports and recreational activities
  • 3-7 Borrowing and lending
  • 5-3 Marriage and family
  • 5-24 Humour and wit
  • 9-2 Cosmology and Mythology

To “finish” our Kovol and language study one of the things we have to do is fill this culture file and write a summary for each subcategory. The hard work here is that we can’t fill it with our observations or our own ideas; we need to gather this information from the Kovol people.

So I can’t just write that “people make fires morning, noon and night”. I have to get an audio recording of a Kovol person saying that as evidence that it is in fact from the perspective of an insider to the culture and not just my own. More than that I need 3 different Kovol sources for each conclusion I make.

Ladders are for playing with

After all I might just happen upon the one person in all of Kovol who does his own thing, when the norm is actually something else. 3 sources helps to make sure we don’t end up with an idiosyncratic view of culture.

Thinking ahead to our next language check (maybe in March) our team is hoping to write up the first 20 subcategories. So that means gathering 3x over Kovol audio recordings on that topic, transcribing at least some of that and then writing a summary based on that information.

One I’ve been working on this last week is fire, power and electricity. I came up with some interview questions on 3 topics. Fire, batteries and solar/electricity. That was 9 interviews right there.

Our latest community movie (nature documentary) night
  • Who makes fires?
  • When do you make fires?
  • What is fire used for?
  • Who gathers fire wood?
  • Where do you get firewood?
  • What do you use ashes for?

That’s an example of some of the questions I asked. I had about 25 on fire and 10-15 on batteries and 10-15 on electricity.

Thats not too bad, but often I come home with a 20-minute interview on my recorder. I edit out the stuff I don’t need (like people discussing how they should answer), and one of my recordings went down to 9 mins. Then the hard work is transcribing what was said. That can take an hour and a half or two.

Much of what I’m hearing reinforces observations I’ve made, but some is new information. I didn’t know for example that they cut open used batteries and use the acid (the “soot”) as a paint to make black patterns with bamboo weave. Or that you can use it to poison a neighborhood dog that you don’t like.

As I get to writing the summary about fire I see the gaps for further study. I have one story about the 1st man to discover fire, I need that 2 more times. I also remember that women carry firewood in bundles on their heads, but men carry it on their shoulders.

Speaking of electricity, lightning struck 15m from one of the houses, so we had some troubleshooting to do.

That prompts me to ask a follow up question. “why do women carry firewood on their heads, but men carry it on their shoulders?” The answer I got back was “because they want to make a fire and cook food”. Haha! True, and they did answer my question, but not quite what I was after. Asking questions in a language you’re learning is hard, so it’s always a treat when a question works.

Often times questions don’t go to plan. How did your ancestors make their bark clothing? “Well the Australians came, gave us salt and clothes and now we wear clothes…. (Continues talking for 10 mins)”. I’ll try that one again another day.

In other news I may have found something that works really well for why. “Megite henee ogoo” (what root) as in what’s the root for that action. Seems to work 🙂

I think everyone is enjoying a bit of a change of pace. I had been working on texts quite a lot where I needed to figure out word perfect what people had said so I could study it and mimic it. These interviews are a little more natural and fluid, and I only need to get the answer to the question – not a word perfect transcription.

20 culture categories complete in the next 4-5 months? It’s doable. Just don’t remind me about the next 80 still to do!

1 Comment

Lois S. · 17/11/2022 at 11:55 pm

Wow! Super interesting! I wonder what kinds of answers to those questions people in the immigrant group we work with would give. So far we are working on teaching them English, and have not made any concerted effort to learn their language. So we do only the most basic kinds of communication.

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