(This post was written early in August. Due to computer issues, I was not able to finish editing it until now).
Yesterday I headed to District 2 of the city (we live in District 1) by taxi-bus, to visit the Neno house. Several people from our village are here in the city at the moment, so I wanted to see them and practice some of the vocabulary I’ve been studying.
After returning to the base, I had a couple questions to ask Juliana’s dad, who is fluent in the “sister-language”, understood by, and very similar to, the Neno language. Don informed me that a sentence I had attempted to construct didn’t quite make sense. After learning how to ask, “Where do you sleep?” I tried inserting the word for “monkey” to ask, “Where does the monkey sleep?” (Yes, my friend’s pet monkey was tied to a corner pole at the Neno house, and we had reviewed the word for “monkey” yesterday, so the question was a reasonable one). But apparently my construction came out more like, “Where the monkey do you sleep?” The good thing is, my friend understood what I wanted to ask, and replied. The not-so-good thing is, she didn’t teach me the right way to ask. Hopefully, in time, she and others will feel comfortable correcting the thousands of mistakes I will be making.
Even more complicated than grammar is the way tone changes word or sentence meaning. Apparently, the word “akuj” is related to location, but depending on which syllable has the higher tone, it can be either a question (where) or a statement (there)…if I understood it correctly. Don had to say “akuj” both ways a few times before I could even hear the subtle difference.
This morning, my inbox contained an e-mail from a free course I am enrolled in. It teaches techniques, hints, and principles that can be applied to learning any language. The founder of the “Fluent Formula” method, in writing about the challenge of learning a tonal language, shared the following story:
(story by Frank Florida, translated from Portuguese by me)
“Trust me…this is an incredible source of misunderstanding and confusion both for Westerners in Asia and for natives! Sometimes it can be frustrating, but it can also be absolutely hilarious.
My first trip to Singapore was more than 10 years ago and, at that time, I literally knew nothing about the Chinese language. However, I knew one thing…I knew that I liked a Chinese dish called “wanton mee” – a soup made of noodles, little chinese balls, and vegetables.
On one of my first days in the country, I was seated in a restaurant with various teachers, who were my coworkers, and it was my turn to order.
“Wanton mee”, I said, and to my surprise, the waiter and my coworkers started laughing their heads off! I had no idea what was happening, until my friend cleared it up for me:
“You used the wrong tone! The way you pronounced it, you said: ‘All hope is lost.'”
I started laughing as well. What a discouraging comment to say to a waiter on a scorching hot day in tropical Singapore!”
In the midst of laughing while reading this hilarious story, I rested my chin on my knee and started whimpering, “Oh no, oh no, oh no!”
On the bright side, it is basically guaranteed that I will be a regular source of amusement during this crazy challenge of tonal language learning. As I figured out years ago, one of the reasons God created me the way I am was to make other people laugh, no doubt about it. Since the Neno only have television for the brief and irregular hours when the community generator is running, a bit of extra entertainment will probably be most welcome. They’ll love me forever.
But on the serious side, how in the world am I ever going to master a tonal language? And what major mistakes am I going to make along the way? Hopefully some of them will be as funny and harmless as the example above. And hopefully none of them will result in saying something I never intended about God or the Bible. That’s the reason our missions agency requires missionaries to reach a certain level in language fluency before we are permitted to start teaching. It avoids lots of potential miscommunication and confusion.
Even though I plan to give it my all, and work as hard as possible in God’s strength, please don’t expect too much. Little by little, word by word, tone by tone, progress will happen, but it may take several years to reach fluency. Please pray that God will give me extra measures of determination, patience, good sense of humor, and diligence to apply myself in this season of ministry. And pray that when it feels like all hope is lost for successfully learning Neno, Jesus will remind me that nothing is impossible with Him. In His name-above-all-names, giants fall, mountains move, languages are learned, and lives are changed. These victories prove, every single time, that Jesus, not us, is the Strong Man, the Overcoming One, the Hope in every fight, the Light in this world’s darkness.