Monday, April 11, 2011

Humbled by Language

I had my first language evaluation on Friday. I’ve never heard details on one of these or been to one, but I’m sure this one in Arua was pretty unique.

I was the last to go of four people. My team leader, Stan, and his wife went the week before me, and Doug went two days before me, but somehow, I think we all had similar experiences.

I arrived and sat at a table under a tree, by myself, and waited while two of the three examiners talked under another tree with Stan and his language teacher and Doug’s language teacher. (My teacher, Florence, had to be in the village, and she couldn’t make it).

Stan came to tell me that the third examiner had called and wanted to postpone because he had a meeting at work. The other two evaluators gave me the option to use my Stan’s teacher or Doug’s teacher as the third judge to fill in until the third one got there, if I didn’t mind.

I didn’t mind at all. I didn’t want to postpone this day any longer. I chose Stan’s teacher because I had only met him once before, and I thought there might be less partiality than choosing someone who had sat at my table and had pancakes and ketchup.

We have lift off…

I will call the examiners “BabyMomma,” “ SoftTalker,” and “NiceMan” (Stan’s teacher).

BabyMomma started the exam. She was supposed to start off with simple things like “Introduce yourself,” “Introduce your friend,” “Are you married?” “Do you have children?” “How many? Are they boys or girls?” Etc. You get the idea.

Now, I know these things. I have been having this type of conversation with people for a year! But somehow, she made it difficult.

When I meet people on the street, they consider I’m a foreigner just learning their language, and they ask me, “Are you married?” Now, I have no idea all the words she used, but it was probably something like, “Today, as you sit here, is there a husband that you belong to?”

The reason I say that is because the question should be, “Agupi ci? But I heard, “Blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah agupi?” You get the idea. No one in my entire year here, has asked like this lady did.

Well, the whole test was basically like that. If they wanted to ask me something, they thought of the most difficult way possible.

Let me also say that BabyMomma was nursing her son quite openly at this point. Doug tells me she did the same to him.

The men in this culture are turned on by knees and not a woman’s upper-body (if you lived here, you could fill in a LOT of stories here), so I know the other national men at the table thought nothing of it.

When I told them I didn’t understand something. They laughed, because I’m sure it was a simple question. I then explained (in Lugbara) that I had only been studying a few months. If you add my two hours here and two hours there, subtract all my travel, harvest time, time when language teachers were busy, unpacking crate and moving temporary house out and permanent house in, etc., it really only adds up to a few months total.

I expected them to talk to me like a child, not like a college professor. Oh well…expectation number 42 down the drain.

When SoftTalker (he could also be called SpeedyGonzalesTalker) asked me to get a piki piki from one section of town to another, he gave a cell phone to Doug’s language teacher, and asked me to pick up my phone. We had a pretend phone conversation as I negotiated for a price. They all just laughed.

Now, I know I must sound funny about a lot of things, and most of the time the people here just laugh because they are excited I’m speaking their language, but this was NOT a good way to encourage me. It was, however, a good way to humble me.

SoftTalker also asked me about prices of pots and plates, etc in the market. I’ve never bought those things in the market, so when I made a guess about the price of plates, he showed me with his hands (laughing at the same time) that the plate I wanted would be about 5 inches in diameter. Humbled.

When I commented on a scripture passage and talked about what it meant, they asked me (at least I think this is what they said) to turn to Stan and Doug’s language helper and say it all again as if I were preaching in church. Yikes!

When I found a song number in the prayer book, they asked me to sing it. I had NO idea what tune it was, and after just sitting trying to decide what I was going to do, SoftTalker starts singing, so I join in. It was a hymn I knew the tune of from the States. After the chorus, I stop, but they all insist I sing verse two and the chorus again, and this time I was solo. Humbled.

Let me stop here and say that the reason I gave NiceMan his name is because he is a teacher of beginners. He understands where we are in the process. He spoke slowly, clearly, and used simple words. Thank you NiceMan.

Also, I must say that after singing, it started to rain, and BabyMomma asked me what I was going to do for her baby when the rain came. I told her we had a tree to sit under. She didn’t like that. So we all got up and went inside the hotel to the small dining room that seats 8 people.

The acoustics were terrible! Every time the baby cried or whimpered or a chair scooted across the floor, I missed key words in the sentences the evaluators were saying. Doug’s language teacher was holding the fussy baby right behind me, and whenever he couldn’t calm it enough, he would take it around the table in front of me so BabyMomma could nurse it AGAIN. After two times, the men realized BabyMomma needed to sit on the end, so everyone played musical chairs and tried to get situated again.

These kinds of distractions went on the whole time. I’m curious to ask my friends in Europe, India, and Nepal if their examinations are like this…

I guess it prepares us for real life…right?

This is long, so I’ll just tell you one more thing, because a lot happened in two hours that I could tell you about. In fact, I was writing posts in my head during the times of the evaluation when musical chairs was being played or we were listening to radio static. (I didn’t tell you about that one. At one point, I’m supposed to tell them what is being said on a news program on the radio, but NiceMan went from one end of the dial to the other on the radio, and in the hotel, he couldn’t pick up any signal.)

When they asked me about the geography of Texas they were using the word “oni.” I didn’t KNOW they were asking me about the geography of Texas until after the exam, because I know “oni” to mean “practice or learn.” So I kept telling them, “Yes, I learned in Texas. I went to school in Texas.”

Apparently “oni” is one of those words that has multiple meanings. In this instance, it meant “hills or mountains.” Humbled (Of course, I didn’t know at the time how stupid I sounded).

This is where I should tell you about my friend, “SI.” “Si” is such a small, cute, little word, but in this tonal language it is an ugly, slimy thing. So far, after a few months of language, I have learned that “si” can mean (and I’m sure there are more):



Get off





Grounding (peanuts)

It all depends on the tone and HOW you say it.

Now, I ask you…how many ways CAN a person say, “Si?”

Another cute, little word “a’i” means: receive, believe, respond, ask, borrow, salt, and co (as in co-wives).

So you see, they could have asked to borrow my Bible, and I could have thought they were wanting me to respond to the Gospel.

Stan recorded my session, so I will probably be able to write a much funnier post after I get Florence to help me transcribe what actually went on in that room.

I’m just hoping that the next time, the examiners and I will both be better prepared, and maybe Baby will be weaned from BabyMomma.


Cara said...

I really love the mental image I get of you serenading the language people. And I am going to make you UBER jealous by telling you (in the strictest confidence the web provides, of course) that SOMEHOW H&I got out of doing the language ability assessment! Thank. The. Lord. But I know our people here went to our ASL’s house and talked with a woman across the kitchen table. She was not breastfeeding at the time. ;)

Kidz 40/40 said...

Wow! What an experience! You will never forget that event! I'm sure you did better than you think. Hang in there and don't be discouraged. You tell your husband to take you out somewhere special and celebrate getting past that event.
love ya,

Nancy said...

This sounded more like hazing to me. What teachers laugh at their students?!

Brandy said...

OH. MY. GOODNESS. Wow! That's crazy. Our assessment is nothing at all like that. First assessment--someone from the company sits with you and asks you questions in English and you answer in Hindi and it's recorded. It's graded/assessed by a national.

Our big assessment is a company that sends us a CD. We play it and answer along with it and record it. So different! Fun story.

I would've cried, and I'm NOT lying!

Polly said...

Omgoodness! I can totally relate! That's how now both of my language exams have gone!! Completely overwhelming and humbling and frustrating. And I did cry during my first one, which is a HUGE no-no here, because I got so entirely frustrated! Sounds like you had more grace than I did! But congrats on being done with your first one and we'll be praying for numbers 2 and 3!!