Chapter 28: Language Learning and Linguistic Analysis

Our first job was to learn the language. There were no books teaching the language, and there was very little actually written in the Itawes language. The only thing we found was a few charts at the first grade level which were used to help children learn the sound-to-symbol relationship of letters in the alphabet.

The Purisimas acted as our teachers in learning the language when we wanted their help. The first thing they did was to teach us simple questions so we could go out for a walk and ask people these questions. From their responses, we learned new words and phrases, which we would then mimic back to them to check if we had gotten pronunciation and meaning correct. We would get up early in the morning and go for a walk. We always took a pencil and paper on which to write new words, and we stopped along the way and asked questions in Itawes of the people who were doing various things. For instance, we would ask in Itawes, “What are you doing?” Then they would answer in Itawes whatever they were doing. We would repeat it back to them, and if we thought we had the right sounds, we would write it down in the correct pronunciation pattern, and repeat it back to them again. We tried to make sure that we wrote it down right so we could pronounce it correctly even if we were coming to the word cold later on. This was a mentally exhausting process. We would do this for as long as we could, and then go home and rest. After that, we checked what we had learned with Mrs. Purisima, and she would help us however we needed it, bringing it to completion.

That activity gave us a vocabulary list of words we should know. We wrote each word on a 4 x 6 card, with the Itawes word on one side used in a sentence. That would help us get an idea of its meaning and how to use it. We wrote the English word on the other side, as well as the translation of the Itawes sentence. Later on, anything we learned about that word, we wrote on that card. As we learned more words, our list grew longer, and we kept getting more and more cards. We put them into a shoebox at first, then later into sturdy little wooden boxes which didn’t fall apart. (As of this time, we hadn’t yet been to the market in Tuguegarao where we heard this was not the ideal dialect of Itawes for us to translate.)

By May, we had been there three months, and we were really getting down to the nitty-gritty of language learning—memorizing words, and trying to see how they fit together to make actual sentences. Of course, Chuck was best at this, and he came up with some real good ones, surprising the folks around us with what he knew. When they heard him say a good sentence, they assumed he knew Itawes better than he actually did, and they started talking to him like they would to another Itawes. When that happened, he had to stop them and explain that he really didn’t know very much after all. It didn’t take them long to find out that he really didn’t. It’s one thing to use a few words you’ve memorized in a short sentence, and quite another thing to use the language fluently in conversation. But, you have to start someplace, and we were starting. A certain amount of time was set aside to do linguistic analysis.

Linguistic analysis is figuring out and analyzing the way a language works. This is a complicated process that involves investigation of the usage of words and their relationships with each other and with the user of the language, and other situational variables. For us, this involved making tape recordings of stories people told us in Itawes so we could listen, write them down, and see how the words related to each other.

We took our tape recorder to someone’s home and asked him or her to describe some incident that had happened in his or her life recently. Then we took it home and listened to it and wrote down what we thought we heard, sound by sound. Next, we took it back to the person who recorded it and played it back to him, a phrase at a time, and had him tell us word by word, and sometimes by syllables or individual sounds, what he had said. We also asked him to give us the meaning in English of words we didn’t know. We took that home, and from the word by word translation, attempted to make an idiomatic English translation, and check that with the person to be sure we had correctly understood what he was saying.

This meant, of course, that at this stage we were working with people who spoke English pretty well. From this, we were learning the natural way of expressing things in Itawes. Then we listened to the tapes again, over and over, until we could follow them and understand them, and they began to sound natural. As one SIL person expressed it, “This involves listening to the point of pain.” Our answer to that was “Amen!” At first, we didn’t know where one word ended and another began. We just listened and wrote it down the best we could. However, after we continued living and working there and hearing only Itawes around us, things began to make sense, words became meaningful, and we managed to make real sentences ourselves that made sense.

We wrote down what we did hour after hour, down to fifteenminute slots of time, to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. That way, later on we would be able to verify what we had done, how long we did it, etc., to see how we were meeting our goals. If we were not meeting our goals, we could see better where we could improve. At times, it seemed like a lot of nonsense, but it did help us to get zeroed in on important aspects of language learning, linguistic analysis and cultural observations.

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