Culture and Language Acquisition

a day in the life [of a language learner]


Written February 9, 2017fog out window

I tiptoe across the kitchen floor to look out the window. Though I see it every morning, I never tire of looking out onto a landscape of thick jungle with clouds of fog drifting slowly along the valley below. I can’t see the river from here, but I can hear its quiet roar in the midst of the chorus of the bugs and birds that greet the sunrise. My chilly toes remind me that I wanted to check the thermometer — surely it’s in the 60s with how cold I feel. Nope, the little red line tells me that it’s actually 72 degrees, a temperature probably considered warm in many places. Not here. I’m looking for a blanket to wrap up in while I read my Bible and start my day.


I was hoping to wash clothes today, but the pitter-patter of rain on the roof makes me question if we’ll get enough sun for me to be able to run the washing machine off the power from the solar panels. Even if there is enough sun for that, I’ll need to use the clotheslines under the house rather than the ones out on the end of the house.

I light the stove and start heating up the water for our morning hot drink. We’ve still not taken up coffee drinking, but a mug of hot tea or Milo (a chocolate malt drink) helps to take the edge off the chilly mornings. After a breakfast of banana bread and some language review time, we’ll be under the house with Andru and Nolas for our language session.

We went on two “field trips” with them earlier this week — one to a group of hamlets we hadn’t visited before, and the other down to the river where people bathe, and wash clothes and dishes. Since then, we’ve been reviewing what we learned on those outings, and have been asking questions having to do with those contexts. Like, “who can bathe where?” “where are people forbidden to bathe?” and “who decides who can build a house in a hamlet?”

After our language session finishes in the mid- to late-afternoon, we’ll be trying to organize all the information we’ve gathered that day. Before you know it, it’ll be time to make supper and turn on the HF radio to “check in” on the evening radio sched. Then dishes and showers and maybe a little time to read or talk before we call it a night and climb under the mosquito net.

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Why are you learning that??

When you hear about all the different things we’ve been studying here in PNG, do you ever wonder, “why in the world are our missionaries learning that? How does that help them?” In case you’ve ever pondered why we are learning what we are (or even if you haven’t), let me take a shot at explaining some of the reasoning behind what we’re studying here in Papua New Guinea culture and language.

First of all, here’s the big picture of why we’re studying Tok Pisin (also known as Melanesian Pidgin). Tok Pisin is one of the national languages here in PNG, so it’s used a lot in towns for people from different tribes to be able to communicate with each other. Remember, PNG has about 850 different people groups who all speak different languages (not just different dialects – these are totally separate languages!), so having Tok Pisin as a common language in the towns is pretty much the only way people from these different people groups can talk to each other. Not everyone in PNG speaks Tok Pisin, but usually at least a few people in each tribe can speak it, so knowing Tok Pisin helps us be able to communicate in the towns here as well as with just about anyone we come across.

One of the biggest reasons we’re studying Tok Pisin is because our heart is to partner with solid believers from a tribal group who are going as missionaries to another tribal group near them. In our partnership with them, we will likely need to communicate with these tribal partners and many other believers from other tribes, and the only language we may have in common with many of these people would be Tok Pisin. Besides that, when we move into the tribe that we hope to work in long-term (alongside our tribal partners), the language we will need to use to help us learn the tribal language would be Tok Pisin.

So for the sake of the ministry we’re hoping to do, and just to be able to get around in PNG, we are working on learning Tok Pisin and the PNG culture right now. But how does what we’re studying each week contribute towards our long-term big-picture goals?

I mentioned in our most recent prayer update that we studied adjectives this past week. Why are we studying adjectives? Well, quite honestly, we use adjectives all the time! When we go to the market to buy our fresh fruits and veggies, we need to be able to say how many carrots we want, and which ones we want. You can’t ask for “3 of those” and “a big one” if you don’t know adjectives. We also use adjectives in everyday speech, like when someone asks if we’re alright (a common greeting here), we need to know how to say “I’m doing well” or “I’m tired” or “I’m hungry” or basic things like that.

So what about the different culture things that we’re learning? Why are we learning how to cook like they do here in the village? Why are we learning to wash clothes like they do? Why did Josiah learn to make a mat out of a coconut branch? Well, there are several reasons behind the things we’re learning in culture. Sometimes, we learn how to do something or make something because it helps us to build a relationship with someone. Josiah made the coconut branch mat with a guy that he is working on befriending, and it was a great time for Josiah to spend time talking with this guy, learning more about him and his world. Other times, we are learning aspects of their culture because it helps us understand the people here in PNG, and it helps us identify with them. If we don’t know how to do basic things in their world (like wash clothes, wash dishes, cook), it makes it hard for us to know what their life is like or establish common ground with people.

So far, I (Rachel) have only been able to investigate very surface level aspects of the culture here (like food, houses, basic everyday activities) because of my limited language ability. But the more I’m able to speak and understand in Tok Pisin, the more I can start diving into deeper aspects of the culture here in PNG – like what men and women’s roles in society are, what their beliefs are, what things are important to them, how and when they express emotions, what the authority structure in the village and family is like, and so many other areas. So the “surface” things we’re learning about culture now help us build relationships with people so we can get down to deeper aspects of culture, and they help give us clues about what things are important in this culture (like why do they only have a few words for colors, but have tons of terms for different family members?), and help us build common ground with them.

I hope this helps in a little way to give you the background for what we’re doing right now in culture and language study. If you ever have questions about why we’re learning what we are, just shoot us an email! We’d be glad to try to answer your questions, though we can’t promise an immediate response. 🙂 And as you think of us, please pray for us as we start moving from just studying “surface level” things in the language and culture here to diving down deeper into the culture and language. We need your prayers!

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