I Had 20 Language Teachers at Once

2015-05-29-Ramo-MenI was getting a little annoyed. I had made a lot of effort to come to the village of Ramo, and I was supposed to have a session to learn their language Uni. I had even prepared little hand-drawn stick pictures of a pig, rooster, fish and so forth that morning for it. But men kept coming into the men’s common area, where I spent much of my time while there. They ranged in age from late teens to men older than I am. None left. They spoke in their language for more than half an hour, forgetting that I was there. I wondered if I would ever have a language learning session.

I had explained the purpose of the pictures to one man earlier. They were part of a basic technique Debbie and I had learned at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) last year. He looked over the pictures and said, “Do you have a kapul?” A kapul is a marsupial living in this area. The men here hunt them at night.

“No,” I said, “I’ve never seen one before.” He set to work drawing one. When he finished, I asked him to draw a better hen than I had drawn. I am no artist.

Two older men introduced themselves to me. “These are the village elders,” Vincent said. Vincent is our Ramo translator. “They’re here to come meet you.”

Oh. This gathering just took on a whole new level of importance. I wasn’t going to get any language learning done. I said a quick prayer about my frustration of losing the session and let it go.

The man who had done two drawings picked up one of the ones he had drawn and presumably started explaining their purpose to another man across the room. Several of them focused attention on me. With such a large audience, I thought I might as well make a more thorough explanation. I used English to show how to use the technique. Within a minute, all of them had learned three English words: ‘mouse’, ‘cat’, and ‘rooster.’

The man who had dawn the drawings decided to take a turn. Well. I was going to have a language session after all, even if I was the center of a lot of attention. The man picked up the same three pictures and repeated the exercise in his language. Each time I answered correctly, the men smiled and laughed. When I had correctly identified all three pictures, they were so pleased that I thought they would applaud. I bowed slightly in my seat, a gesture some of them apparently recognized, because they laughed.

Might as well take this one step further, I thought. I taught them the first stage of another technique often known as TPR. I stood up. “Stand up,” I said in English. “Sit down.” I sat down. I repeated this three times. Then I had several of them stand up or sit down.

Then it was my turn, but all the men participated with me. Vincent said “Stand up.” Everyone stood up, and most of them were smiling. Vincent the word for sit down. Then everyone sat down. Then he had various men stand up or sit down. I still don’t have the words yet, because Uni verbs have a very complex structure, but it was a start. And I had my language learning session.

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