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OT somewhat: reminiscences re: Learning languages

From:Roger Mills <romilly@...>
Date:Friday, March 12, 2004, 4:28
H.S.Teoh, Philippe C. et alii have written of their touching and
heart-rending experiences with L1-L2-L-n experiences, so here's a couple of

The most embarrassing:  During my first extended visit to Sulawesi for field
work on Buginese and its relatives, I was taken on a whirlwind tour of the
Bugis-speaking areas by friends from the univ. in Makassar.  This was a fun
trip over a longish weekend, skilfully arranged and (I'm sure) nicely
financed to everyone's benefit-- and involved in the main lots of
tea-drinking with local pooh-bahs, attendance at local festivals (which may
or may not have been staged for my benefit). One of these involved
attendance at a Really Bad Hong-Kong movie, and I and my group were all in
favor of walking out, but couldn't, since it would offend the local general
who was enjoying the movie immensely...........Mostly, the trip involved
driving over horrible roads from one place to another.**  Very interesting
countryside, but until the last stop, minimal contact with the Buginese
language (even though two of the men accompanying me were fluent &
knowledgeable speakers, with whom I later worked).  In that town (Sengkang,
for those who want to look it up), I was taken to meet with The Local Basa
Ugi' Expert, an elderly gentleman.  Also in attendance were the
aforementioned two men from the univ. in Makassar, the local military
commander, the (I think) Mayor, and others of less certain function.  Intros
were made, in Bahasa Indonesia.  Tea was served.  Finally, someone asked,
"Well, Pak Mills, what do you want to ask Pak...... about bahasa Bugis?"  I
screwed up my courage, and trotted out what I'd learned 2 years before in
Field Methods, and asked, "siaga asëtta?" (what is your name?)--- which he
very nicely answered, "asëkku ..... (my name is.....). I then collected a
short wordlist, some sentences, we finished our tea and bade him good-night.
Later on, one of my friends from the univ. pointed out that I'd allowed
Bah.Indo. to interfere with my rudimentary Buginese---  In BI, "apa" is the
question word, "si-apa" is "who?" (and siapa namanya = what is your name?).
In Bug. _aga_ is the question word, but unfortunately the false friend
_si-aga_ means 'how much?'-- so I'd asked this distinguished gent "how much
is your name?" I shoulda asked _iga asëtta?_ or _igai asëtta_ to be
absolutely correct............
**Here's a sidebar too good to pass up: enroute to Sengkang, around 3 PM we
stopped in a tiny burg in hopes of refreshment. The guys from Makassar had
bought a whole bunch of pineapples, but we couldn't touch them because they
were going to resell, or maybe give them to relatives, when we got back to
town.  Meanwhile, we were all thirsty, and that little village had never
heard of sodas.  Somebody persuaded a 10-yr old lad to scale a tall coconut
palm and throw down a few ripe ones-- he did so, but unfortunately or
perhaps by design (for lo, there were goats grazing under that palm), the
last one he threw down managed to conk one of the grazing goats right
between the eyes.  WE got out of there fast; presumably the village had a
nice feast that night....
This tale, I'm sure, will be familiar to anyone who's done research in a
3d-world country; or let it serve as cautionary to anyone about to embark on
such research-- but don't let it stop you. Il faut mit the Flow gaan.

My other, less embarrassing and linguistically more interesting experience--
in 1974 I went to a school in Mexico to explain how easy or difficult it was
going to be to teach Spanish to a bunch of Indonesians who were coming there
to buy a steel mill..........My Spanish was always a lot more fluent than my
Indonesian, but the latter was fresher in my brain, and in speaking Spanish,
I found myself doing things like glossing over tenses in favor of _ya_ for
perfect/past (= Indo. sudah) and various other tangles. The amusing and
rather striking thing about that episode is that when the Mexican company
approached the UM Ling. Dept. for someone fluent in both Span. and BI, there
were TWO of us; I just happened to be the more available!!!!


Dan Sulani <dansulani@...>