“The only time you are speaking wrong is when you are not speaking at all.”
These are the words on a sign up in the Civic Center which is the home-base of the Unangam Tunuu Summer Language Intensive on St. Paul Island. Although I completely agree with this sentiment sometimes it’s harder to live out in real life than it sounds, mostly because I always want to be correct when I’m speaking, especially since my most recent experience learning a new language. I was documenting the phonology of Nabit to develop an orthography so I needed to be very precise.
When I found out I would be coming to St. Paul the first thing I did was research Unangam Tunuu as much as a could, and because of my linguistic anthropology training this meant that one of the first things I did was look up the phonology of the language. I downloaded an Unangam Tunuu phonology chart, as well as a chart showing which sounds each letter in the orthography represents. I then visited my favorite website, the interactive IPA chart and listened to the sounds that I didn’t know how to pronounce and practiced repeatedly, but my pronunciation of some sounds (mostly the velar and uvular fricatives) is still not great. After I arrived in St. Paul and began working on learning Unangam Tunuu I asked speakers to pronounce the sounds for me and found some words that I could practice that had the sounds in them. The more I practice the better I get, but I still know when I’m wrong because I know what each sound “should” be.
When Evan told Casey and I that we would be learning chinuk wawa my first instinct was to look it up and do some research, but Evan encouraged Casey and I not to look up the phonology so that we just practice listening and he says that eventually we’ll hear the sounds better than if we look it up and are expecting them. But I have to say, it’s killing me to not know what the sounds really are and not be able to pronounce the words I’m learning correctly yet. The other night I was making some notes after a hunt with Sky and he looked at my notes and asked me why I was writing. I told him that I like to take notes because it helps me remember, which lead to a long discussion about language learning and whether I should remember from speaking or writing. Sky also suggested that my writing might not be helpful since I wasn’t writing the correct sounds anyways which was the perfect opening for me to tell him I should be allowed to look up the sounds of chinuk wawa. Mostly to appease me Sky decided that I might as well see what the writing system looks like so he wrote down some of the words that we’ve been working on for me which really helped clear up what some of the sounds I’ve been struggling with are, like ejectives.
Learning chinuk is turning out to be an exercise in learning a language like I’ve never learned before, which according to Sky means not using the “tools” that I’m used to like IPA charts and taking notes, and instead trust that my ears will learn to hear the sounds and once I hear them I’ll be able to pronounce them correctly. I fully acknowledge that wanting to always be correct is a pretty detrimental strategy when learning a new language though and can see how much progress I’ve made in chinuk by not worrying about always needing to be “right”. As long as I am close enough in my pronunciation to get the meaning across I can have a conversation, which in the long run helps me stay in the language longer and actually learn more than if I kept stopping to ensure that I was pronouncing each word correctly. In the month that I’ve been here, and three weeks that I’ve been learning chinuk I’ve definitely eased off on asking for accent adjustments and am embracing the mumble. It has really come as no surprise to me that I’m finding it a bit challenging to turn off the linguistic anthropologist in me and stop worrying about being correct and instead and fully embrace this learning style, but the progress I’ve made learning chinuk wawa and the fact that I can have an entire conversation without needing English, has pretty much made me a believer.
Post authored by Robyn.