We’ve been working on learning the Kovol language for the last 5 months, bringing us up to a grand total of 13 months of full time language study since we moved in in January 2020 (we had a big “break” in the middle to return to the UK to bring Alice and Millie into the world).
Learning a language is a humongous, daunting task and I’m sure that you can imagine that sometimes it’s tricky to know what to work on next. Sometimes you feel like your wheels are spinning and sometimes you can develop bad language learning habits that slow down your progress.

Alice does her thing

That’s why we’re super glad to have language learning consultants in PNG, missionaries who have finished learning their own language and then studied up on language learning technique in order to give us some “talk steer”. The advice they need to give is level dependent of course, so evaluations are part of the visit to see how we’re doing and to quantify our progress.
We have a level system consisting of 9 levels (well there are 3 more on top actually – but level 9 is when you’re able enough to start teaching and translating).
The 9 levels are Basic Low, Mid and High, Progressing Low, Mid and High and Capable Low, Mid and High. Capable high is the stage where you can communicate well enough to teach.

In our last check in July 2020 both Gerdine and I were at Basic Mid, level 2; and a check has been long overdue.

Steve gets a good crowd of helpers for his check

Our 2 consultants, Wes and Jeremiah were delayed a day due to weather here in Kovol making it impossible for the helicopter, but a crowd of Kovol helpers had already gathered and were eager and excited to get a report on our progress. The next day though with the weather clearing it was eval time 🙂
It starts with our going through the pre-evaluation form we went through and chatting over how we feel things are and what questions we have. Our day in and day out experience is wrestling with the intricacies of Kovol language and culture and it’s already encouraging to have a listening ear and affirming of the hard work we’ve put in.

Then it was test time. I was up first and mine went for four and half hours! My brain was mush by the end of it 😀 We spent 2 hours or so working through a grammar worksheet. “Steve, can you say number 1 please?”. “This is my bag” I read, then I go ahead and say “om enn obo”. “What did he say?” Jeremiah asks and our Kovol helpers respond in Tok Pisin and Jeremiah checks off that I can indeed say that. The sentences I need to say get progressively harder.

Bet he’ll learn to speak faster than we do

“The man goes to the market and brings back LOTS of fish” I read. “mohis hab ulum ogoo yab ombolta tenn obob libigee” I say. The Kovol helpers translate “The man went to town and brought back fish”, and Jeremiah starts asking the clarifying questions. “How many fish, one or lots?”. “One” they reply. The great thing about the systematic check is that it brings attention to holes we have in our ability to communicate. You can’t make nouns plural in Kovol, and actually I really struggle to indicate amounts of things. It’s ambiguous in the Kovol language: the fish could be one or many (and the word I used for “plenty” “tenn” doesn’t seem to mean what I thought it meant). In normal Kovol conversation it doesn’t usually matter how much of something there is, they have a very loose grasp on quantity, but there’s got to be a way to unambiguously indicate plural when you need to. It’s a bit of a grey area for me – needs more study.

As does kinship terminology: I need a bit of revision on the family relationship words.

We carry on though; there are some gaps, but I’m still doing great on lots of things, then we get to the capable level stuff.

Gerdine telling stories

“BECAUSE the boy hit the pig it is squealing” Here I struggle a bit. I can say “the boy hit the pig and it squealed”, but the logical relations are tricky. I’ve been on the look out for if, because, so, should, could and words like that, but they haven’t come up yet (or I haven’t noticed them). I remember really going for the if word when I studied trap building. “If the mouse touches the trigger the weight will fall down and kill it”, but it was never if, it was always when. That means I’m limited to those active, declarative clauses strung together and Jeremiah wasn’t hearing the Tok Pisin words “olsem na” (therefore), “bilong wanem” (because) or “sapos” (if) that would really show I’d gotten the right logical relater.

Hitting the ceiling with grammar we move on to communication tasks. I was hoping I could pull out my story about building a house or planting a garden.

Alas it was not to be. “Describe PNG independence day celebrations in Goroka, including the Goroka show and compare them to what happens here”. I launch into it. There’s lots of dancing and singing in Goroka, there’s a greasy pole competition and people come from all over for the Goroka celebrations, whereas in Kovol there might be a game of football.
I communicate well enough to get the gist over and my helpers helpfully fill in a few blanks (after describing the greasy pole I had no idea how to say there was a prize for whoever got to the top).

Then I had to read a paragraph (in English) about how PNG independence happened in 1975 and tell a story about that, focussing on what the Australian government was like. Jeremiah asks our guys to tell the story back and then asks them about whether the sort of things Australia was doing before 1975 were the same as after. Unfortunately I’d used the wrong tense and given them the impression that some of their activities (like giving axes and machetes out – which happened in first contact situations) were ongoing.

In the next story I was asked to explain why batteries in town have different prices based on their materials, place of origin, supply and demand, and why we can’t just have them for free. I hashed some sentences together that if listened to very carefully gave the gist of differences of material, quality and expenses at the factory that need to be paid for. It’s nice Jeremiah doesn’t understand Kovol as my explanation wasn’t… smooth. People got the idea though and gave back the general idea.

Then I got to tell a story about going to Goroka market one time and having a pickpocket lift a roll of 2 kina notes out of my pocket, but my noticing and being able to cry out and scare him off.

As I said four and a half hours after starting I was feeling like my head was full of cotton wool 😀

Later on I’m given my score, a solid Progressing High with elements of Capable Low, but not quite there yet (lacking those logical relaters!). A 6 out of 9, which is where I would have put myself.
I told the Kovol guys my score, they are delighted. “3 more levels and then the teaching can come!” they say. It’s nice to get a good score, but then I start to think about what’s next and feel tired – there’s a lot of work still to do!

Gerdine’s check was after mine. Hers was an hour and a half long and came back with Basic Mid, level 2 out of 9, which is where she was in July 2020. She says she doesn’t feel too disappointed by that, it’s a good snapshot of where she is right now. Her vocabulary and language ability is certainly better than back then, but she hasn’t cracked using longer clauses strung together yet and still communicates by stringing shorter phrases together. While not great news that she “hasn’t made progress” it helps focus her on the things she needs to be working on and she’s glad she has a better chance now of making better use of the little language time she gets now as a homeschooling mum with 3 little ones.


Mandy Caley · 03/11/2022 at 11:14 pm

Wonderful- you know it took us 7 years in Palaka before we could start to translate or prepare Bible lessons! We think you are not superstars 🙂

Lois S. · 04/11/2022 at 12:32 am

Thanks for sharing about your progress. Great job learning a complicated language!

    Wonita · 04/11/2022 at 1:13 am

    This is an excellent window into how this process works. I understand it a lot better now. Thanks for all the blow-by-blow detail! Fascinating.

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