How to quickly gain some basic knowledge in an unwritten indigenous language

An house in the Amazon



In these weeks I am conducting field research in indigenous villages in the Amazon and, while I am not aiming to get fluent in the local indigenous language (I am working with bilingual translators and my research is short-term) I am very aware that any population appreciates when foreigners make some effort to learn few basic sentences in their own language and, by doing so, show genuine interest in their own culture.


In this post I try to answer the following question: how can we gain quickly some basic knowledge in an unwritten language?


Many of the methods discussed in the language community to learn languages assume that one is learning a written language. However, there are many unwritten indigenous languages in the world where no written resource is available to study and learn the target language.
Only in South Americas indigenous people speak more than 300 different languages and transmit their knowledge orally. For many of these languages the only written text is the Bible that has been translated in many otherwise unwritten languages by missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.


To get around the lack of written material on my target language I wrote in Spanish a list of sentences or short expressions that I wanted to learn. These were simple sentences, such as “Good morning”, “Thanks for the food”, “See you later” and “can I buy a coconut?” (my favourite drink is coconut water). Then, I asked one of my indigenous assistant to speak loud these sentences while I was recording with my voice recorder. Now I can use the audio file to revise the recorded sentences at optimal intervals to avoid forgetting them and to learn them as quick as I can.
Hopefully I would be soon able to buy coconuts using the native language!

Peter

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