Monday, July 2, 2007

Language Barriers

Australians seem to spread like fungus. In even the most distant pockets of the planet, places so remote that they are seemingly immune to tourism, you’re as likely as not to be resting idly in your own headspace when you hear that melodious nasal drawl drifting through the hum of background noise, signalling the presence of a compatriot. I’ve always found it reassuring for some reason. That common bond ensures at least a temporary conversation which invokes the comforts of home; a lot of ground can be broken with the salutary ‘whereabouts in Oz are you from, mate?’.

I’ve read plenty of theories about the ‘Australian Diaspora’, but I’m not going to go into any detail on them here (almost as much of my family lives overseas than does in Australia). Similarly, I have my own view on the cost/benefits of travel and tourism, but that too can wait for another time. In this post it’s sufficient to say that – in a world where Australia seems to be slipping in so many benchmark measurements – it’s good to know we are still competitive with the leaders in something. Aside from the Kiwi’s (bless them), the Japanese, the Swedes and (perhaps) the British, I can’t think of any nationality that could hold a candle to Australian’s for the International Travellers mantle.

PNG, of course, is a special example. By virtue of geography and historic ties, the locals here are more than familiar with the Australian expatriate; at the latest count I think there were an estimated 8, 000 Australian citizens in the country. By further virtue of the saturation of Australian TV they are subjected to (poor bastards), they should also be familiar with the Australian dialect, but most are still baffled by the occasional colloquialisms I drop into conversation.

The other day when we came across a ute fully laden with 20kg packs of rice (about ten of them), I remarked innocently that there was ‘more rice than you could poke a stick at’. Clearly all I meant was that there was a ‘lot of rice’; and clearly (from the look on the face of my colleague) it had been interpreted as ‘I would like to get out and prod all that rice, but there is just too much of it’. Sensing his confusion, I tried to explain that it was something that is said in Australia to express wonder at an amount; to which he graciously nodded in faux-understanding before pointing out another unremarkable local landmark in order to change the topic. I get the feeling that neither the local language nor the universal Pidgin have equivalent pointless sayings, and that my colleague – taking a literal interpretation of the saying – still thinks that Australians measure the quantity of rice by some bizarre equation involving a stick, which he has no desire to learn more about.

Whilst spoken English is generally pretty good here (considering it is at best a third language), there are some subtle throw backs from Pidgin that still cause confusion. For example, questions are never asked in the negative in Pidgin – so if I were to ask (in English) ‘you haven’t seen the movie?’ the answer I’ll get is ‘yes, I haven’t seen the movie’. This isn’t too hard when the answer is provided in extended form, but can be confusing when it isn’t. Consider the following conversation I had with Tim (my former chef) when I was still living in the lodge (see postscript):

JB: ‘so, you haven’t got any pork then?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘oh, well… I’ll have the sweat and sour pork in that case.’
TIM: ‘ah, sorry? You want sweet and sour sauce with vegetables?’
JB: ‘just the standard sweet and sour pork thanks mate’
TIM: ‘oh, sorry, no gat’
JB: ‘oh, so you don’t have any pork then?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘yeah, you have no pork?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘got it, I’ll have the steak in that case’.

(Hmmm…. that seems to lose quite a bit in the retelling, but it’s the best example I can think of).

Anyway, my Pidgin is coming along reasonably well; I can usually understand words that are spoken around me, and can even hold a basic conversation if forced to. It really is – as I’ve been told by the locals several times – just broken English. But it’s badly broken, mixed up, then thrown at you like a handful of sand… it’s not as easy to pick up as it sounds.

I’m also working a little on my Kaunua… and that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Kaunua is the local dialect (there are 800 odd of them in PNG) and is one of those languages that contain subtle noises not normally found in English enunciation. Sounds that can only be produced by contorting and rolling the tongue – something that doesn’t come naturally to me – but are apparently essential to give inflection to what you are trying to say. Occasionally, when I attempt the local ‘goodbye’ of ‘yohrah’ I can pick up the giggles as I’m walking away and the locals repeat ‘yooorarr’ – which I guess is their equivalent of Australians making fun of the Japanese not being able to pronounce ‘L’ sounds (‘Harro’). I don’t take any great offence at it.

Language is a bit of a funny thing here in PNG at this point in their history. Most people still speak their local dialect as a first language – a tradition I hope they manage to retain – and the lingua franca of Pidgin is pretty much universally spoken, allowing people from different areas to communicate. And then English is spoken as a kind of language of business (as well as being the language of the national press and broadcast media). So depending on the situation they find themselves in, the Papua New Guineans need to be proficient in at least three different languages. But while most people are conversational in English, a lot don’t possess the higher proficiency needed for activities such as report writing… which can lead to some hilarious – yet tragic – typos; an officially gazetted planning document I was referencing the other day had PNG being ‘prawn’ (as opposed to ‘prone’) to natural disaster, and this is – sadly – only one of many, many examples.

It shouldn’t be this way. Having to conduct official business in your third language is always going to be hard, and only the most skilled linguists are going to be able to do it without error. So the poor Papua New Guineans are forced into a situation where the work that goes out in their names contains the sorts of glaring errors that draw derision from the uninformed reader, and draw attention from the true quality of the content. In short, to the biased observer, the written work makes the locals look a lot less intelligent than they actually are, which is nothing short of a tragedy in a nation trying to assert itself in the global economy. As a parallel, if I were to write a report in my third language, I guess it would have to be in Japanese (which I did for one year in high school); it would have to consist entirely of the fourteen words I can remember (ten of them being numerals). So the locals are actually doing remarkably well.

Anyway (as is rapidly becoming my catchphrase)… it’s not my problem. My first few months were defined by me listing all the problems I could see and compiling mental solutions. Then exhaustion forced me to stop. There are a lot of problems. And there are a lot very smart and very dedicated people (both local and expatriate) working to fix them. I’m a Town Planner (and not even a particularly dedicated one), I’m here to work on town planning issues; the linguists can ponder language.

But as a word of advice… when you are next at a BBQ with a loud and opinionated person (you know the sort I’m talking about… me, essentially) who is full of knowledge they’re willing to share about how to fix the problems of the world; tell them in your best Strine to ‘shut the f*ck up, mate’. The real people who know how to fix the problems of the world are out there doing it – despite the language barriers – everyday, without their help.

Hope you are well wherever you are.


Postscript: and yes… after very nearly six months of frustration, I’m now resident in my very own self-contained unit. I could go on forever about the simple joys of being able to cook my own food (bangers and mash has never tasted so good), or cable TV, but I’ve rabbited on for long enough already in this post.

1 comment:

Jane is STOOPID. said...

"The real people who know how to fix the problems of the world are out there doing it – despite the language barriers – everyday, without their help."

Burf, this is possibly the best sentence you have ever written. It makes me never want to be loud and opinionated again.

(Of course I will be, but you get the idea.)