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Orientation to learn a language and the pattern of cultural investigation

The first precaution we must take, when beginning ethnological study, is that we run into its limitations. Laburthe-Tolra and Warnier[1] emphasize that in ethno-anthropological research we need prolonged familiarity, between the researcher and the goal object, that is, the people or group that we intend to study. Remember after anthropology was recognized as a discipline, many companies commissioned research and wanted the results in a short time; this resulted in a shallow study disconnected from present reality. The authors state that ‘long familiarity . . . is such that it is only possible way to have access, in being accepted by the observed group and sharing in their day to day life. .’ this is the best work tool for the researcher.    
 
Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier warns us that it is necessary to live with the people to be studied. Only in this way are we able to have access to the way this people think, organizes itself and the values within it. Something interesting to add here is that this people, whether urban or tribal, do not have demarcation categories for its values. That is, in spite of experiencing these each day, they would not know how to explain them or systematize them. For example, the expression ‘post-modernism’ arose to explain a certain behavior from the new values in a complex human society, normally urban or rural, but not tribal. But before the term arose, the thing that was the motive for the term already existed: the ideas. The same happens in societies called simple.
 
Among the Konkombas of Ghana, for example, the term magic was not found. However there is a term for the wind: libuln. And according to character of the wind (force, direction, altitude) something can be or not be magical. In spite of not having a specific term there is an elaborate idea of magic. It remains for us to categorize, understand and systematize such ideas. It is necessary, in this way, for us to study the values of this people and transform them into written values and intelligible to us, as fundamental for us to understand their universe and communicate well within it.
 
Acquiring the Language and Culture
 
In this basic orientation we emphasize the elements that I judge to be essential for the study and learning of a language. They are: 1) Gathering and organizing; 2) Study and analysis; 3) Practice and community living; 4) The informant and preparation of the sessions; 5) Individual study.   You will fin a more complete methodological description to learn languages in the method we call Dialektos.[2]
 
Gathering and Organization
 
The idea is for you to observe around you, what is necessary to survive and integrate.
 
The people of your locality, for example, perhaps use the river to fish, bathe and travel. One knows life rotates around the village and the forest is source of subsistence. Therefore here are some of the elements to seek out. You need to know how to articulate expressions and ideas like: river, creek, water, fish, bait, hook, canoe, paddle, house, village, forest, hunt, food, fruit . . .
 
If the environment where you are is a small interior city in Africa, you will notice that the people about you circulate daily around the central market. The children will go to school and play in the surrounding fields. The trade in animals is central to the subsistence and everyone congregates in the mosques. Here are some elements that you seek out. You would need to know how to understand and articulate the concept of: Market, street, buying animals, fields, school, mosque, and teachers. .
 
Write in your notebook, as you walk through the village or town, what you notice (by observation) what you need. Use the community (more than the language informant) to get what you need. In this case the gathering of terms will be more informal, daily and relational.
 
In the process of gathering vocabulary you must use some tools. The most important is selective observation, in order to identify the thing that is useful to you. Also walk around with a rough notebook and pencil that will serve to make notes while you walk around the community. Keep at home a file (in the computer) or a main notebook to transfer all the information gathered, in a more organized way. We suggest that you have also a recorder (if digital, preferably with a USB connection to the computer) to record in sound terms and short pieces of conversation.
 
There are different ways for you to organize the material collected. My suggestion is that you have, at the beginning, three files or principal notebooks.
 
In the first notebook (or file) you will work with the gathered material. In the second notebook (or file) you will work on the analysis of the language, if that is the task. In the third notebook (or file) you will develop a basic dictionary.
 
The first notebook
 
This must be divided into three parts. The first will be dedicated to nouns and similar particles.   The second will be kept for verbs and their parts. The third you will record small phrases. For all the terms collected (in the three parts) you should ideally make also a phonetic record of each word. If you are able also make an audio record of it make a note where the recording can be found.
 
The second notebook
 
This is reserved for the analysis of the language and here we must understand the great difference between languages that are already analysed and others that are in process of being analysed, or are still completely unwritten. This notebook will have greater value for those still being analysed or not analysed. There are different approaches for these and if you have possibly done a linguistics course you will have had an excellent orientation. Briefly we can state that to analyse a language is to describe the structure and explain the relationship between sound and meaning. Divide this notebook into three parts. In a more structuralist approach, we can denote these parts as lexicon, syntax and phonetic. The study areas are Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology, Syntax, Semantics, Discourse and Pragmatics.
 
The Third Notebook
 
This notebook (or file) will be dedicated to being an initial dictionary in alphabetical order. Divide the notebook (or file) into parts according to the alphabet of the studied language, leaving space for at least 300 terms in each letter. This will be your reference dictionary. Leave space after each word to write it phonetically in brackets, and register some brief explanation about it (one line at most).   
 
The sound entries must also be organized by session (when a formal session with a language informant), by subject (when by informal gathering in the community) or by area of study (in the case of lists, vocabulary, etc.). Have also a specific file to record, a) phrases; b) short stories; c) exercises.
 
Study and Analysis
 
Study and learn what you have gathered, may be the language informant or in the community. Separate the verbs, nouns, make a list of a growing vocabulary; study the basic linguistic system of what you have gathered. For this, you will use the three notebooks. Listen many times to everything that you have recorded at different times. In this case 20 minutes, three times a day, will give you the best results rather than one whole hour skimped. Your brain will absorb more information and be less tired.
 
Evaluate the progress of your studies, both your efficiency and fluency. Use methods that are simple and clear for you. If necessary simplify the process. Evaluate the terms learnt, your grammatical understanding and also your practice. These areas need to be kept in balance.
 
Each one can use up the time that you need for study and analysis. In general I believe that for a planned and prioritized study, the ideal would be not less than three hours each day, Monday to Friday, totalling 15 hours weekly and approximately 60 hours monthly. We do not include here the time spent in practice and use of the language in the community, but more formal study, of analysis, understanding, sessions with informants, exercises and the organizing of the material.
 
Practice and Community Living
 
For this it is necessary to go out and be with the people. Go both with the particular purpose for what you are studying and also informally. Practice with children and not only with adults. Children are, in this initial stage, excellent conversationalists. Test what they understand of what you have said. Ask them to correct you. Stroll through the community and while there, avoid using your own language.
 
Have ready some easy phrases that will help you, such as: ‘Please speak slower?’ or ‘Can you repeat that please?’, or also ‘What is this called?’ and this way you will be able collect and correct your study material.   
 
Try to choose the best environments for learning. If you wish to study that day terms such as cassava, flour, tapioca, oven and food, go to the house where they prepare the cassava, or to the kitchen of the nearest families, if possible, and use your vocabulary. At this point it is important not to analysis (to know or explain), but just how much you can communicate.
 
We give as general suggestion to take 15 hours each week for this, which may be all that is possible with the other duties, to learning a new language.
 
So this would be three hours each day, Monday to Friday, to complete the 15 hours weekly. Each day should be divided as follows: One hour with the informant, one hour of individual study with the data gathered, and one hour of practice. During one year (with ten study months) you will have studied (and practised) 600 hours of the goal language, which is a significant amount.  
 
Choose the best time for your hour with the informant, especially considering the informant himself. At first a couple can share this time, but it is possible after a time that one spouse develops faster than the other, and then it is better to have separate sessions.   There can be difficulty in maintaining the informant’s interest and diligence in sharing this time (with couples or friends) to make the most of each opportunity.
 
Choose the best hour for individual study. Preferably a quiet in a place where you can listen to what you have recorded, read out aloud what you have written and practice without interruption.   
 
Choose the best time to practise with the people. Give preference to the time when the people are resting, but at the same time accompany them in their daily activities. If you might be able to help them in some of their daily work, you will be able to use the time to do your daily practice of the language. We are thinking of the time for practising of the language.
 
Spend the first half hour practising what you have studied and learnt. Spend another half hour trying out new phrases, listening and noticing the nuances of the language.
 
 In spite of you separating one hour a day for this practice, you must make the most of the opportunities to speak in the context in which the language is spoken informally. The continual use of the language is most beneficial in your learning. If possible you should increase to two or three hours this time of speaking and practice and so gain more.
 
Have special friends. They are those who like to listen to you, correct you or simply converse with you. Be among them during your daily practice.
 
Take care not to get too close, at this stage, to those that do not use the dialect that you are studying, because of the difference of dialect.
 
Return from your practice, remembering (and writing) what you have progressed in, communicated well, and on what you need to spend more time, whether it is phonetic or in the grammar.
 
The informant and the preparation of the sessions
 
To receive your informant during a learning session get ready your recorder (some prefer a digital recorder with USB link to their laptop), your notebook and a quiet environment if possible.
 
Prepare the sessions before hand. If possible, prepare them with the informant or at least mention the subject, so that he may have time to think about how to explain them better.
 
Be flexible. If the informant does not arrive, or may be indisposed that day, use the material that you have available from study and practice. If the punctuality and disposition of the informant become problems for your situation, think about contracting two or more informants.
 
Leave the informant to suggest the day and hour of study. It is important that he feels at ease and motivated. Plan (and have a clear verbal agreement at least) the payment that he will receive. Make a note in a notebook of the hours studied with him, and the payment to be received or paid, always making the notes in front of him, giving him an opportunity to clarify any doubts or to make suggestions about payment. Normally the payment can be made for study hours or sessions, always preferably with a fixed rate.
 
Check the information given by the informant with the local people to check its accuracy.
 
Record every lesson. Afterwards you can take out what was most useful and separate to a specific file.
 
Write the received information, either in a laptop or in a study exercise book, making rough notes that can be rewritten better. Do not waste the time with your informant organizing your written material. You can do this later.
 
Take time for revision of all the material at least every 15 days, with the informant. It should be a general revision every two weeks with the aim to recapitulate with him the information gathered and how they are used.
 
When you prepare the session (not more than one hour and a half per day, unless the informant is very qualified and available) think of a theme chosen from daily life, especially if you are at level 1 or 2. For example: ‘tapioca.’ The session therefore should circulate between the elements (forest garden, cassava, harvest, grater, flour, the means to squeeze out the poison, dough, oven, tapioca, etc.) and the activities (clear the forest, planting, harvest, choosing, peel, grate, toast, bake, eat etc.). At levels three and beyond add the values (dignity, nourishment, alimentary security etc.). In this way you will be able to focus well on what you wish to learn at that session and get the maximum information to study.  
 
In the session you are able to ask questions (take a vocabulary to learn), an activity to be done with him to get information not planned (drawings, figures, pictures, etc.) and immediate practice (normally phonetic) beyond the grammatical construction (discussion to understand the structure of the language). Well prepared sessions are a great impulse to learning.
 
An example of preparing a session.
 
We will suppose that you want to study on the next day the forest and its various aspects. First make a list of the nouns as well as the verbs associated with the forest. You will certainly list terms like tree, bark, branch, fruit, seed, earth, swamp, creek, fish, animals . . . as well as hunt, fish, cut down, collect . . . and so on. This list will be used to develop the subject with your language informant during the session.
 
Collect also some objects linked to the forest so that you may be able to visualize things during the session. In this way you will be able to have on the table some fruit, seeds, leaves and so on.
 
Have always at hand paper and colored pencil (or colored pens) if your informant likes to draw and paint, which is something positive.
 
Have a clear aim for each session. In the example, it is to gather a vocabulary about the forest. Or it would be a practice of exercises for correcting the phonetics and so on. With a clear aim in mind the session will progress in a more objective way.
 
During the session with your informant you should attempt to maintain the surroundings as calm as possible. Have a regular place of work. It is advisable have a table and two or three chairs. Bring to the session only the things you will use. An abundance of papers, notes and exercise books can distract of your language informant. Explain clearly the object of the session, right at the beginning, and show the material with which you will be working.
 
 
In the example of gathering vocabulary and understanding the forest environment, begin with what is visual, such as seeds and fruits that are on the table, and develop the conversation about the subject. Also allow the informant to bring descriptions of the forest and not only to respond to your questions. Finally, use the list, to gather in a more objective way, the terms you need.
 
If you are recording the session, which is always recommended, take the tape (or digital file) from the recorder until you are ready to record the vocabulary. That is, on this tape (or digital file) you will record the gathered vocabulary in organized way (ask the informant to speak each term two times) and record it following the previous established list. Therefore these vocabulary tapes or files will be ready for listening to, and doing pronunciation and memorizing practice.
 
Individual Study
 
For this you must have ready your three notebooks, if you are following this form of organization. Some people after a time notice that the notebooks (or files) will contain far too much material, and they will prefer to concentrate on a few practical areas in the individual study time. In this case, especially in levels 1 and 2, you can have a notebook for individual study, in which you concentrate on the following categories:
 
General terms collected
Simple and complex phrases
General Grammar
Sessions with the informant
 
I suggest that you begin the individual study rapidly organizing your material and revising the material of the lesson of that day’s session. Listen to the principal recorded terms, repeat and memorize the meaning, and put together with what you have learnt of the previous sessions.
 
Take time (normally not less than 30 minutes per day) for study and grammatical understanding.
 
It is important to know that in relation to a language the quantity of material gathered does not determine your fluency, but your mastery of the material you have studied. So not try to cover many areas, terms and expressions.   Concentrate of those that you have studied. This obviously does not apply to a person who has limited access to the community that speaks the goal language. In such a case perhaps you should spend (when among them) 60% of your time in gathering and 40% in practice, leaving the analysis to when you are unable to be there.
 
Separate the terms and phrases with which you have difficulty phonetically. Divide them into smaller parts and practice the phonetics. You can make lists of the terms that contain difficult sounds to pronounce (5 to 10 terms with the same sound). You can also make double lists of terms that are similar and are distinguished only by the tone. You can make a list of the guttural terms with which you have difficulty, and so on.
Separate the terms or phrases with which you have difficulty of grammatical understanding. Study them separately afterwards.
 
We remind ourselves of the idea of Laburthe-Tolra and Warnier, concerning ethno-anthropological research, to emphasise the aspect of prolonged familiarity[3] that we quoted at the beginning of this chapter.   This idea made the anthropologists take successive changes to the field research methods. Previously they had done their research in their studies far from the groups studied and generally based their research on the records of travellers and scholars. Later they began to spend time in the field, as an area of research, but did the research with what is called today veranda research, that is, they placed themselves in a place of observation, rather than to insert themselves into the people. In the third stage they became convinced that they needed to move among the researched people, developing the technique called participation observation.   
 
Scale of levels of fluency in acquiring the language
 
We shall follow, as a guide, the levels divided from 1 to 5, with some alterations and adaptations from the levels used by other methods, such as Allison and Thomson. I prefer to define the levels in an accurate way to help self-evaluation and own orientation, also defining each level by the suggested linguistic content acquired. This way you may use this scale to define your goals. The evaluation that we will prepare will also follow the proposed definitions of 5 levels of fluency and linguistic learning.
 
Level 1  
 
This has the minimum 300 basic words in your initial vocabulary.
 
Pronounce well, phonetically, this initial vocabulary, so that it is understood by the native speaker.
 
Identify this initial vocabulary when it is used in the middle of a conversation in which it is heard (simple dialogue)
 
Identify in this way the ‘subject’ of most of the conversations about you.
 
Interact, in an accurate way, with short phrases in some of the conversation around you using the proposed vocabulary.
Succeed in using the initial vocabulary in the composition of short phrases, in greetings, questions and objective replies.
 
Achieve in associating some short phrases to form longer phrases.
Make sure that you are understood and are accepted (in a simple way) by the community only with the studied language.
 
Make sure you are able to communicate your basic needs as hunger, thirst, sleep, rest and others.
 
Know the basic numbers.
 
Know the basic colors.
 
Learn to succeed in articulating well the shape and position of objects and persons.
 
Be able to speak about the climate and the family.
 
Achieve in distinguishing and identifying the principal members of the family.
 
Level 2
 
You have the minimum of 600 words in your vocabulary.
 
Pronounce well, phonetically, this vocabulary so that you are understood by the native speaker.
 
Identify this vocabulary when it is used in a conversation (between two to four persons).
 
Identify the ‘subject’ and details (the development) of the conversations about you.
 
Interact with complete phrases in the conversations around you.
 
Develop phrases not memorized beforehand, associating words and short phrases, in a spontaneous way (not planned beforehand) in a conversation.
 
Do not rely on your mother tongue to discover new terms and meanings in the studied language, except in complex cases.
 
Succeed in expressing, if only partly, your more complex needs such as learning, friendship, relationship, privacy and others.   
 
Be able to converse (dialogue) about specific subjects, chosen beforehand, in a relaxed way and with good mutual understanding.
Succeed in articulating well about concrete subjects both in and outside the community.
 
Achieve in distinguishing all the members of the family, their roles and relationships.
 
Level 3
 
At this level you have 1,000 basic entries in your vocabulary.
 
Develop a fluent conversation on any area of daily life, with a person or a group.
 
Interact always with complete meaningful phrases. Ask questions and provide answers in normal interaction of a conversation group.
 
Explain grammatically the basis of the language with verbal tenses, prepositions and the use of adjectives.
 
Produce phrases without tiring or difficulty, forming thoughts in a free way, that is not memorized beforehand.
 
Interact freely in the studies language without need of one’s mother tongue for research or understanding. Cultural and linguistic meanings are explained in the goal language.
 
Be able to make known your most complex needs. Achieve also to explain them and apply this explanation in the right context to those who listen.
 
Achieve discoursing on a certain subject for 30 minutes without difficulties.
 
Participate fully in a meeting that discusses ideas.
 
Be able to converse (conversation with a person or a group) about non-specific nor pre-chosen subjects, in a relaxed way with good mutual comprehension.
 
Succeed in talking well about concrete subjects, as well as subjective aspects, both in and outside the community.
Be able to develop a conversation on a family subject acceptably to a member of the family.
 
Level 4
 
Think in the goal language.
Have more than 2,000 basic entries in your vocabulary.
 
Develop a fluent conversation in any area of daily life, as well specific subjects in the history of the people.
 
Be able to explain myths and legends of the people, in distant times, raising questions and expounding ideas.
 
Make jokes in the language in a natural way.
 
Explain your thoughts and ideas without difficulty, and be able to talk them over with a group.
 
Be able to raise, explain and converse about complex subjects such as fear, hope, understanding, tolerance and violence.
 
Succeed in discussing a certain subject without difficulty for a prolonged time.
 
Participate actively in a meeting for the discussion of ideas. Be able question and explain ideas.
 
Be able to articulate about concrete and subjective aspects of society, its religiosity, taboos and values.
 
Be able to develop a conversation on a family subject to a member of the family.
 
Level 5
 
Think and speak in both your mother tongue and the goal language with ease and naturally without inhibitions.
 
You have a comprehensive vocabulary, not discovering more than 20 new words per year in ordinary conservation.
 
Make fluent conversation on any area of life, on subjects of the history of the people and on subjects related to the cultural values of the people.
 
You succeed in explaining the myths, legends and cultural nuances of the people.
 
Interact and communicate well in any level of discussion.
Make jokes in the language in a natural way and also and listen and understand them naturally.
 
You can explain your thoughts and ideas without difficulty. You understand the thoughts and ideas of the other person, or of the group without difficulty.
 
Be able to discourse for an unlimited time, without tiredness, or loss of fluency at the end of the day.
 
Be able to articulate about concrete and subjective aspects of society, its religiosity, taboos and values.
 
Develop a family discourse. You are a member of the family and teach to others the values of your family.
 
Practical counsels for learning a language and a culture
 
Permit me merely to give some advice about the posture of the missionary or researcher that plans to gain linguistic and cultural knowledge of a specific ethnic group.
ü Do not turn your home into a place of refuge. Move among the people and live among them. Participate in the routine of a local family.
ü Do not transform your companion into a cultural interpreter. Commonly the husband or wife, or members of the same team, tend to rest on the fact that their colleague is developing sufficient cultural and linguistic understanding to explain all that is happening. This position is disastrous for gaining knowledge and secondly, the untidiness of such learning will result also in a cost of local adaption and contentment in relation to the people.
ü Live daily within the circumference of the culture. Systematically take time to move in the life environments of the goal group. Observe the key places where the people have the custom to go to meet, converse and to work. If the members of that group give wisdom, knowledge of the father to the son, from friend to friend, at the end of the afternoon in the communal house at the fireside while the lie in a hammock, it is there you should be at five o’clock in the afternoon each day.
ü Keep yourself open to new customs and systems. The time and manner will change if you are inserting yourself into a people with a great cultural difference. Perhaps these two, time and manner, may be the aspects that create discomfort. If the manner of transmitting knowledge is by repetition in an environment of circular time, for example, get used to hearing the same story 15 times in a night. The best way to minimize the discomfort related to time and manner is to participate.
ü Experiment!   It is necessary to be selective with social facts, and especially religious facts, that you do not yet understand. However do stop to experiment with the simpler aspects that are part of the daily round like food, clothes, hunting and fishing, the plantation, walks and the conversations at night.  
ü Do not be afraid to make mistakes. They will laugh. Language errors will cause many laughs as you begin the process of learning the language. Laugh with them.
ü To adapt is not to create new ideas of amusement, lifestyle, dwelling etc. but to transfer your formed ideas and fit them into the culture in which you find yourself. Adapt yourself.
ü Learn the language. Without fluency in the language you will not have good friends, life companions, among the goal people. Linguistic fluency should be aimed at for the ministry, projects and research, but also for personal relationships and work satisfaction.
ü Keep under control the comparative-critical vision. This can impede a more rapid and easier adaption. To compare the aspects of lifestyle (dwelling, relationships, profile, food etc.) of the goal group, or of your environment, with your city, house or country is a fatal error that causes a heavy heart that has difficulty to make use of the good opportunities of living contact and learning.
ü Depression, feelings of loss, homesickness and feelings of inability in the first months will possibly happen. At some level some of these symptoms should occur. If they have not happened to you, perhaps you are an exception. However if they happen and take away your peace, pray and wait, because they will pass after and initial period of six to 12 months.
ü Have contact with the people not less than four hours per day. I mean a direct objective contact with the people (linguistic / cultural study and daily sharing). If there is not a measure of permanent adaption in the first six months (of presence in the environment of the goal people) it is possible you are not no the right track.
ü Have a sense of humour and simplify your lifestyle. In the area of observation and research you will possibly be working under a certain pressure.   Simplify your behaviour, activities and needs so that this pressure does not invalidate your permanence among the people or your team. People with simple lifestyle, with few personal and external demands, tend to live more happily in the research field.
 
[1] Laburthe-Tolra, Philippe and Warnier, Jean-Pierre: Ethnologie, anthropologie: PUF 2003 (French) and Etnologia Y Antropologia: Akal Ediciones, 2006 (Spanish).
[2] Dialektos – método de aquisição e avaliação lingüística, (Method for acquiring and evaluating a language) Ronaldo Lidório. Instituto Antropos, 2008. Available in site www.instituto.antropos.com.br.
[3]Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier, Op.Cit., pg.423 (Brazilian edition)