Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Learning Wapishana

In my life I have learnt one language (Mandarin Chinese), made an effort with three more (French, Spanish and Tibetan) and had a lovely time dilettanting about with another four (Italian, Welsh, Latin and Modern Greek). Learning a new language gets steadily more fascinating as I get older. It’s so intriguing to discover what people have no need to say, how they clump some sounds, split fine hairs of distinction with others and sift out fundamentals I can’t do without. My ears need to readjust, but so do my assumptions. A language embeds its culture, and perhaps none more so than a culture that is dying.

Eleven of us are coming to the thatched community centre for five hours a week to learn Wapishana. Two are native speakers and are coming to improve their reading and writing. The rest are beginners. The teacher is a fluent native speaker, but (like many TEFL teachers of my acquaintance) knows very little about his own grammar. The primer is written for native speakers working on literacy, so it doesn’t help him at all. I am rapidly turning into the next door neighbour’s five-year-old that you always wanted to slap, with my relentless “But why...?”s.

He tries to teach us the dead ‘u’ and ‘au’ sounds that remind me of North Wales ‘y’s. But he does not mention the tiny glottal stop before every consonant which gives the language its lovely heavy-on-the-clutch-bus-driver rhythm. He teaches us a bewilderingly random vocabulary. We know the noun ‘fork-tailed flycatcher’ long before we have learnt any nouns for household objects. The verb ‘to collect poisoned fish’ comes three lessons before ‘to hear’, and we still haven’t reached ‘to do’. When I asked for the verb ‘smells bad’ to complement our newly acquired ‘my armpit’, the teacher whooped with hilarity as if I was immensely witty. In fact I was trying to make use of ‘armpit’ in any context at all, and this was all I could think of. Do I REALLY need to word for armpit so early in my language development? We also do a fair bit of learning a noun for “a small brownish bird” or two different verb forms distinguished by “well, they’re more or less the same, but you can’t use them the same, but they’re the same really”. “Is this present or past tense?” (Pause). “Both”. (Pause). “Oh”.

My favourite thing so far is numbers. Wapishana only counts up to 400, because it counts by the body. In English we tend to talk about ‘... on the fingers of one hand’, but take away shoes, and it’s logical to use twenty rather than ten as your base unit. So twenty whole persons makes 400. Over that, you just say “enough/ plenty/ many”.

One is ‘its seed’. Two is ‘with a companion’. Three, possibly my favourite, is ‘according to the number of stones under a pot’. Four is ‘each with his companion’. Five is ‘one hand’, ten ‘both our hands’, eleven ‘one toe to our foot’. By the time you reach fifty and ‘two people’s bodies and both hands more’, the words are becoming seriously unpronounceable- “Dya’utam-pi’(d)yan-nannaa-baokooka’u-powa’a”. I have never spent a day trying to learn the numbers 1-5 in a language- and failing. I love the length of time it would take you to count anything. Imagine Wapishana accountancy classes. Or mental arithmetic- that’s not mental gymnastics, that’s contortionism!

So together we struggle onwards amidst a great deal of hilarity. It’s quite likely that we will come out at the end of the course only able to tell almost any person or combination of people that they have seen a deer. We are learning from the inside in a way that isn’t at all coherent or comprehensive. But as a result we’re gaining a few precious insights into this understated culture that has welcomed us. And we foreigners hope that our enjoyment of the language, and fascination with its particularities, might give some of the disenchanted young adults pause before they finish dumping the last vestiges of their ancestral culture into a nice shiny modern trashcan.


  1. This is great, I am glad you are enjoying learning this complicated language. Clever girl!!!

  2. Yes Sarah "the brain" Broscome. will continue to take still more academic prisoners. thats an amazing counting structure Sarah. good read. Win xxx

  3. Incidentally I heard last wek that there are now more english speakers in China than India and that soon there will be more than England! And that teachers of English are in massive demand in China... Now there's a thought! Winstance.

  4. Just remember, theres no to be or to have and theres no tenses in the traditional sense! Its contorted, but it made sense to me (kinda) after a while... I'm glad they got the classes restarted though!

  5. When and why? why? did you tinker with Welsh. I'm 10 weeks in and still can't string a sentence together - it's a BITCH! J and I are equally driving our tutor nuts with 'whys'. I think with mutations there ARE no reasons, they're just there to mess with the saes heads...

    I love the counting - that's brilliant. I can just imagine the kids all wriggling about in a maths test.