Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Aliihani (Reading)

Several weeks ago, I started using a book that teaches Garifuna speakers how to read their language. There are example sentences with little pictures and some short, imaginative, and entertaining stories. For example, how a monkey tried to eat an iguana and fell out of a tree on his head; how a cat swallowed a toy rat and died; and how a proud fish laughed at other fish's funny eyes or whiskers. Reading these is becoming a daily addiction! =)

Last week in my graduate program we looked at reading comprehension strategies in classroom language instruction, which is easily applicable to my own language learning ventures, as well. Here are my not-always-helpful tendencies:

1. If I don't immediately recognize a word, feverishly hunt for it in the dictionary.

2. If I don't immediately understand why a suspicious suffix is attached to a word, call it an emergency and run to my favorite language helper.

3. Read through a story once and want to immediately move on to the next.

These are some more effective strategies I've been using since being further enlightened (or reminded of fairly straight-forward reading comprehension principles):

1. Look at the title of the story and illustrations and predict what I think the story is about, recalling basic and familiar words I know that relate to the topic.

2. Read the story through to see if I get the gist, identifying parts I'm not sure of, and making some guesses on vocab words.

3. Read the story a second time, this time looking up words I still don't recognize (interestingly, waiting to look them up helps me decipher words I really do know that are brilliantly disguised by affixes or variant forms). I take my time and imagine the story in my head - the visual images, sounds, smells, dyamics between characters, etc.

4. I think about concepts that come up repeatedly in stories that might convey cultural practices or values. I also note similar patterns from the spoken stories I've heard in Garifuna.

5. ***If I don't understand every word or or grammar structure, I don't worry about it; I store it in the "for future research" category in my brain.

6. I read the story a third and final time, usually out loud, so I can remember it later and practice pronunciation.

I am thinking about taking these stories to read to nieces and nephews next time I get to see them! Social interaction always makes a learning activity more fun and meaningful. =)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Difficult? (Hénrenguti?)

In one of my graduate classes this week, we are discussing affective (emotional) and personality factors in relation to language learning. One of my colleagues posted the discussion question, "Are there difficult languages?" in relation to Bernard Weiner's "attribution theory," which "focuses on how people explain the causes of their own successes and failures (Brown, 2007, p. 156). Is language success and/or failure due to ___?:

1) my ability
2) my effort
3) my perception of the difficulty of the task
4) luck

I have been thinking and re-thinking this.

Before I started learning Garifuna, I would have attributed and celebrated successful Spanish learning to both (1) and (2), having to choose among these options. (NOTE: I'd want to add my own attribution of God's gracious gift of loving Spanish and Spanish speakers, wonderful professors, many opportunities to learn the language, kind Spanish-speaking friends who have helped me and loved me, etc....)

My perceived difficulty of Spanish was low:
• Lots of people learn Spanish.
• It has similar words and features compared to English.
• I had abundant resources and opportunities to learn it (widely-spoken and accessible).
• OTHER people had cracked the idiosyncratic quandries of Spanish and related languages and handed it to me in a digestible and structured way.

Spanish was not difficult! Instead, I see my learning process as a kind of love story with a happy ending that keeps going...

Returning to the question of whether there are difficult languages or whether the difficulty is in my perception...

If I had to answer the above question regarding Garifuna, I would be likely to put (c) first. I'm supposedly "good" at languages, I am disciplined about studying, but I feel like the language itself is my greatest challenge at becoming proficient.

This is what I've heard/know about Garifuna:
• "That's not a language... it's a language and a half!" (SIL professor)
• "When you figure it out, let me know" (SIL translator who knows about 10 languages)
• "Do you know of any outsider who has really become fluent?" (me to a Garifuna speaker) "Not really."
• "The grammar is... complicated." (I heard this one often from my favorite language helper)
• Question: How many Arawakan languages are widely spoken, studied, and taught? Answer: None that I know of.

My perception that Garifuna is difficult for me seems well-validated, right?

"Difficulty" from a linguistics angle can mean (1) complicated features in the language itself and (2) relative proximity to one's native language to the one being learned. From a sociocultural perspective, "difficult" can mean accessibility and receptiveness between the target culture and my home culture.

BUT... I think it is fair to say that you can have all of the perfect variables in order, yet your attitude toward yourself, speakers of the language, and the language itself can make or break your success. On the other side of the coin, you can view challenging variables as "doable" (or fascinating, opportunities for growth, etc.) and become a proficient learner. (Or so I say to myself.)

Do I think Garifuna is difficult ('hénrenguti')? I realize I use this word A LOT. It reminds me of a common saying in Cuba: "No es fácil" ("It's not easy"). After spending a month there, I found myself saying it quite frequently, and it really did affect my outlook on whatever "difficulty" I was describing. Do I really want to keep telling myself and others that Garifuna is difficult? There are days I feel like proficiency is an elusive goal... but maybe the greatest barrier is my own perception.

As excellent as my graduate readings are, nothing beats the Bible for addressing this. I find it interesting that Jesus Himself is called the Word ('verbo'), and our ability to use words reflects His fingerprints and purposes for us. I also find it interesting how countless narratives describe the outcomes of doubt ('hénrenguti') versus faith ('afiñeni') (note: not 'ménrenguti,' or 'easy').

So, my new learning goal is not a set of new vocabulary or a new verb paradigm, but to stop letting 'hénrenguti' color my perception of what could turn into a beautiful story of its own.

Brown, Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. 5th edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bible Verses and Relative Clauses

One of my goals for 2011 is to memorize more verses from the Bible, so I've created my first trilingual set, with Garifuna, Spanish, and English for each of the 10 verses. For example:

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Juan 3:16 "Porque tanto amó Dios al mundo, que dio a su Hijo unigénito, para que todo el que cree en él no se pierda, sino que tenga vida eterna."

Huan 3:16 "Aba lasigirun Hesusu ariñaga: “Ladüga wéiriti hínsiñe gürigia ha ubouagubaña lun Bungiu darí lun lóunahani Liráü le ábanrügüti, lun lounwen luagu hafigoun, lun sun lan ha afiñerutiña luagu, meferidirun hamaamuga, gabagarirügü hamaamuga aban ibagari le magumuchaditi."

I have the bad habit of knowing how to paraphrase a verse and more-or-less where to find it in my Bible (that green highlighted section on the bottom right-hand side...). I would like to actually memorize complete verses with their respective references. I also have been teaching my Sunday school kids verses in Garifuna. Today they said Psalm 115:3 in front of the congregation, who gave them a rousing applause.

I use NIV (New International Version) for Spanish and English . You can see that the verse in Garifuna is considerably longer (!). Some language learning benefits from learning verses include:

  • Having the main idea in my head from English and Spanish, so even if I don't understand the little bits attached to words (affixes), I still get the gist of what they mean.
  • Learning discourse features (discourse is the study of texts or larger chunks of language), such as connector words ('but,' 'therefore,' 'because of,' etc.).
  • My favorite new learning focus: relative clauses (a relative clause is a phrase that modifies a noun, such as "my friend who lives in Honduras").

Relative clauses in Garifuna intimidated me, so I avoided focusing on them. But learning verses is helping me get a feel for how they work. For example, in John 3:16:

  • "gürigia ha ubouagubaña" means "people who are in the world"
  • "Liráü le ábanrügüti" means "son who was the only one"
  • "sun lan ha afiñerutiña luagu" means "all who believe in him"

I found this confusing at first because 'le' and 'ha' also function as demonstratives: 'gürigia ha' alone is 'these people' and 'halaü le' is 'this chair.' So the same function word acts as a complementizer to create a relative clause.

There are some details I still haven't clarified, but at least I'm getting the hang of the idea, so much so that I produced my first relative clause automatically the other day: 'this is the one that I'm going to do,' a moment of epiphany.

I have one other related tidbit to add, another eureka! moment while making coffee this morning:

'ideragubaadina' = 'you have helped me'

'bideragubadina' = 'you will help me'

In the first example, ideragua is the verb stem meaning 'help'; baa refers to second person singular past tense; dina is the first person singular object.

In the second word, the stem and object are the same, but the b- prefix refers to second person singular; -ba suffix is future tense.

I had been somewhat aware of this difference but finally was able to pinpoint and articulate it today, and my language helper confirmed I was right!