I have been in official Tigak language & culture study for a little over a month now and I am starting to feel the enormity of the job in front of us. Learning the Tigak language will require us to not only learn thousands of vocabulary words, but also how to arrange those words into phrases, and then sentences, paragraphs, stories and finally full discourse. Culture is a whole other story. The complexities of learning a new culture to the point where you are ready to teach the Bible at worldview level is a monumental task. Where do you even begin a project like this? Like someone has wisely said, “How do you go about eating an elephant? One bite at a time!”
Along the lines of beginning a bite at a time, this past weekend we had our culture & language consultant out again for a post-kickoff check up to make sure we were implementing some of the methods of language learning we had gone over during our kickoff early last month. In answering the question of how to look at how we spend our minimum of eight hours per day in language & culture study, our consultant challenged us that the two main concepts that we need in our study is 1) quality exposure and 2) good procedures.
Quality Exposure means we have to get out of the house or the office and go hang out in the village. Of course, our work is a little more complex than that, but getting out is at least the first step. The big idea is immersion.
So, every morning I grab my hat and sunglasses, along with my awesome 4th generation iPod Touch (which was a gift from our pastor) that has both a camera and a microphone built in- perfect for language & culture study- and head out of the house. I also carry around a pen and notebook, too. One of the ladies in our village told me she was going to make me a basket (this is a traditional basket for our area carried by men under their arm) to keep all my stuff in when I walk around, so the pen and notebook will go in there eventually.
My overall goal for when I’m out is basically to become like a sponge and observe and absorb everything I can. So from the house I usually head for a friend’s house via the main strip of path which runs parallel to the water on the east side of the island. Its one of the main paths on our island mostly because of how many huts line that side of the island. This makes perfect sense because of the wonderfully cool breeze from the ocean! So I head over that way, because more huts means more people, and more people means more action, and more action means good culture study opportunities.
On a typical day wandering along this thoroughfare you’ll probably find people relaxing on the beach, ladies making baskets or mats and guys chipping away at canoes. You’ll see a lot of people sitting around talking, and depending on the time of day you might catch people preparing food or preparing to go out fishing. These things and others make up the daily lives of the Tigak people on our island, and our job is to learn all about them. When someone I know is working on something new I haven’t seen before, I stop and watch for a while before moving on, all the while taking notes and pictures.
On a side note, I think the natural temptation for people living in a foreign culture is to hang out in their house or in their office. It can be difficult at times to get yourself out of the office, out of the house, to go be with people. Its easy to do since our house becomes a little expression of our home culture and therefore provides a feeling of normalcy into our otherwise chaotic lives as foreign workers. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless it means totally avoiding the culture you live in or avoiding people, which is counter productive to our goals. (This may also be a sign of culture shock.) To get quality exposure necessarily means getting out with the people.
This brings us to the next main concept. Not only are we focusing on quality exposure out of the house and office, within the community, but we also need to employ good procedures for learning the language.
Good Procedures means that there is more to our language & culture study than just getting out and observing things around our island. It means we have a plan for getting language information and recording culture data. This is why I carry around a pen, a notebook and the iPod Touch.
I have some main friends on the island that have been especially helpful for culture study. One of them is a guy named Robin. Several times now I have sat and watched Robin as he has worked on different projects near his house. Once I observed him making an axe handle, another time he was working on a canoe. On another occasion he helped a younger guy in our village make a canoe paddle. (You can probably sense a theme that the men in our island are pretty savvy when it comes to woodworking).
When I watched him make the axe handle, I took pictures of every object he used and every action he did. Later I took the pictures to my office and made a picture book out of them, and afterwards went back to him and asked him to tell me the name of the objects in the Tigak language, as well as how to say the actions or verbs that I took pictures of. Later I filed the audio clips into my computer for further review over and over again.
This is what is meant by good procedures. Our immediate goal is to learn the Tigak language & culture. The Tigak language isn’t going to learn itself, so it takes some planning and follow through to make sure we are doing more than just going out and hanging out with people with no agenda, though there is an important place for that in terms of building relationships.
On a personal note, when we did our PNG trade language study, I learned a few things about myself as a language learner and a few things about the language learning process. Now that we are using the trade language we learned last fall to now learn the Tigak language, I am trying to implement some of those things into our current language study. One of the main things I learned is that it is crucial to develop good habits early on. If I cut corners now at the beginning stages, I would be shooting myself in the foot for the later stages, which I feel happened during trade language study.
Quality exposure and good procedures are two big ideas that we have been challenged with by our CLA consultant. To be certain, if you are only after learning language and culture, then good procedures and quality exposure will definitely get you there. However, we are after much more. Our consultant continually reminded us that learning the Tigak language and culture is step, a vital step, in reaching our true goal, that of seeing people come to know Christ and seeing these believers brought to maturity in the context of an indigenous church. This is only accomplished through absolute dependance on Christ for the strength, wisdom, power, provision and even the results.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understandings.” (Pr. 3.5)
Dependance on Christ means that we recognize that without Him this work is not difficult, but rather it is impossible. Dependance on Christ means we are facing a challenge that is bigger than everything we have in ourselves to face, but not too big for Him. Dependance on Christ means that we are not trusting in good procedures and quality exposure to build His church, but rather trusting that the results are His. Dependance on Christ means that we stop thinking that we have what it takes in our education, gifts, personalities, talents and any other abilities we have to do this work and simply rely on Him and His strength. Dependance on Christ means that we recognize our personal weaknesses and failures and see them not as proof of our inevitable failure, but rather as proof of God’s inevitable glory. Why? Because had we been all that we needed, to do all that He wanted, the glory would be ours, and the weakness would be His. Dependance on Christ means the work is His, the power is His and ultimately the glory will be is His.
Though weakness is often looked upon with contempt, Alistair Bragg has rightly reflected, “If dependance on God is the goal, than weakness is an asset.” Thank God that that the Tigak can come to know Him and His worthiness through us in spite of our weaknesses.