So Many Languages, So Little Time!
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
This is written in a testimonial style, recounting the experiences and influences I have experienced related to language and language learning.
I have studied or analyzed about 55 languages from different continents, becoming conversant in many of these to various degrees of fluency. I have lived overseas for about 38 years. I have taught in several venues methods of linguistic and phonetic analysis and language learning. I have established language and culture learning programs in several countries of Africa, and consulted with various agencies and educational institutions in several continents.
I have two doctorates in linguistics, specializing in Bantu languages and ethnic worldview studies. My website is my primary credential, indicating my major areas of research and resources in the areas of Culture, Language and Worldview.
Many of the linguistic insights showing up in my professional linguistics work developed out of my own language learning and contact with other cultures. My involvement in languages began as a child growing up in Texas.
My interest in languages and people of other cultures began with my association with Spanish-speaking people. Much of my experience in Spanish involved informal learning, from my friends. The aspect of learning language from normal people in normal life settings is an important part of the learning approach in language-learning programs I later developed.
My first formal opportunity in Spanish came in the third grade when I participated in a community Spanish class organized by my father, who owned the radio station in our town of Quanah, Texas. Spanish programs were included in the schedule, a progressive approach for that time.
The teacher for the evening class was the Spanish announcer at the radio station. I recall myself using that language from those early lessons and can remember many of the illustrations and class events. I then studied Spanish for two years in high school. My brother is a teacher of Spanish, and we use Spanish between ourselves at times.
I use Spanish commonly in my various research topics. I maintain several internet contacts in various countries with whom I chat on ICQ. While working as a media intern (1975), I conducted a radio interview in Spanish with a pastor on a Dallas news radio station.
I began learning French in the seventh grade, learning on my own from a book which gave phonetic representations of French sounds and presented diagrams of lip and tongue positions. A great aid in making use of this resource were the phonics principles I had learned in the first grade, which gave me a phonetic perspective on language.
During that same year, through a school penpal program, I began corresponding with a student in France, and continued until I was through college. I also began corresponding with a student in Spain, which helped my Spanish development.
French has been a favorite language of mine since I was a child. I studied French in College, just because I was interested. My focus changed and I decided to make it my minor for the BA, including the teacher preparation courses. Readings in French literature and philosophy supplemented my Philosophy major. I tutored French while in College and a bit later in Kenya.
I continue to use French often in my research and other professional work and travels. I have a certificate in Commerce from the University of the Sorbonne, Paris.
By the time I was able to take Spanish in high school, I was already fluent in Spanish. As a senior, I added Latin, the only other language taught in our school. I then took Spanish in college, along with French, which was my minor field for the Bachelor of Arts.
In college I also studied German for two years. Broadening my awareness of languages and linguistic principles were several courses in phonetics, linguistics and philosophy, the latter being my major field and involving serious analysis of language forms and logical argument.
At no time during my college career, however, did I intend to become involved in a career involving languages. It never occurred to me that my interest in languages was unusual. I simply followed my interests.
To the World
My interest in languages led my wife and myself to go overseas for a period of two years as mission volunteers. I had expressed a call to fulltime Christian ministry in high school and had been involved in preaching, music and other church activities since that time.
We planned to spend two years overseas and then enter professional church work. This two-year assignment to Kenya, East Africa, changed our direction, leading to 25 years in Kenya, with work covering much of Africa, and more recently work in Cyprus.
Our training session for overseas service included an intensive introduction to language learning principles led by Dr. Donald N. Larson. Larson had developed an approach to language learning which involved learning from ordinary people.
My own learning experience had followed a similar pattern, and I was stimulated by the structure and sequence of activities he proposed for such an approach. Larson was the one who indicated to me that my interest in languages and my understanding of grammatical principles were unusual.
In this training session they used a pidgin English language from Papua New Guinea as a focus language to illustrate the learning techniques. It was called a "throw-away" language, but I did not throw it away.
Edith and I mastered it and still use it for some situations. It comes in handy in a multi-lingual situation where we do not wish to be overheard! I have retained notable fluency and reading skills, kept sharp by periodic reading in the Pidgin Bible, and by listening to Radio Australia Neo-Melanesian Service.
Immediately upon arriving in Kenya, I proceeded to learn Swahili. No formal courses, even introductory, were provided to us as volunteers. I used ordinary contacts in the community and got informal help from coworkers. Using a grammar reference book and a bilingual dictionary, I determined to become proficient in Swahili. I attended national churches and community activities where English was not used.
Some insights from Larson's training session were helpful, but I did not follow his daily text sequence. Before the end of the two-year term, I was writing and editing radio and television scripts in Swahili, as part of my media assignment.)
In a later assignment in Kenya, I was the main speaker or announcer in various Swahili programs on the government radio service, Voice of Kenya. I have been published in Swahili, for original articles and translated books.
In addition to learning Swahili, I read many books on African language and linguistics. It was only during this period that I realized that the aspects of language that interested me were what constituted the discipline of linguistics. When I returned to the United States, I began to study in that area in preparation for returning to Africa to work.
My primary emphases have been Historical and Comparative Linguistics and Community-Based Learning.
In those two years, I gained an introduction to Kikuyu, the main language in Central Kenya, in which I later became fluent and taught. I was also introduced to Kamba, a neighboring language.
Upon return to the US, I taught Swahili for one year in Skyline High School of the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District. In 1974 and 1975, I was invited to serve on the faculty of the Toronto Institute of Linguistics (TIL), a summer training program in language and culture learning principles for missionaries going overseas. I later joined the faculty of TIL for three more sessions.
Each summer at TIL I taught phonetics and led a workshop in developing basic language texts in a different language. The work shop was a training session in language learning techniques using demonstration and work with actual language informants in a language unknown by either leader or students. I remember working with Korean, Japanese, Greek, and others.
As one of the group leaders, I worked directly with our langauge-culture informants, eliciting basic phrases equivalent to one month's language texts as the class looked on. We would practice togetrher and then go out into the community to practice in the real world.
Working with the informants over a three week period, I would develop fluency drills on these texts formt he lessons we devleoped. Through this interactive process, the new learners gained skill in eliciting language texts and becoming independent langauge learners. In any one-month session in Toronto there were opportunities to engage numerous ethnic communities in their languages.
I had the honor of delivering the 1994 Annual Graduation Convocation Week Course in Swahili for the Kenya Baptist Theological College.
Arabic and Ilonggo
In 1974 and 1975 I also worked with Larson in the same language training program for volunteers where I had first met him.
In the 1975 session, I elicited phrases from a Philippine speaker of Ilonggo to construct 25 initial lesson texts with grammatical analysis, using no resources other than my single informant. This demonstrated Larson's learning approach, and represented the materials a new learner would develop and learn in the first five weeks of language learning.
In this session I also developed one week of lessons in Arabic with another informant. Like the sessoins with Ilonggo, these leson elicitations and development were done in front of a roomful of orientees learning how to learn a new language. From 1973 to 1975, I also taught phonetics and language learning techniques as a resource specialist, in missionary training courses for the Southern Baptist International Board.
Graduate Linguistics and Languages
In those years I studied linguistics and African languages further as part of my personal preparation for return to Africa as a missionary. I also studied classical languages as well as Portuguese. Even then, I did not foresee that this would lead to a professional assignment in linguistics. I returned to Kenya as a media specialist, with responsibilities for radio, television and film development.
Upon arrival, I began an advanced program in Swahili, negotiating the design of my own program schedule with the director of the Baptist Language School, operated by the Baptist Mission of Kenya. At this time the mission language program was at a point of transition. My learning experience and evaluation at the time became considerations in the changes being made.
The unusual manner in which I have learned so many languages has contributed considerably to my concept of learning approaches. My formal studies in linguistic theory have been oriented to learning problems and practical considerations.
Since 1971 I maintained contact with Don Larson and worked with him in leading conferences on language learning in the US and Canada and various countries in Africa and North America until his death. His concepts of language learning have influenced me as we have compared notes over the years. Over the years Larson also asked me to evaluate his ideas and new materials.
From April 1977 through April 1991, I was the Director of the Baptist Language Centre, a Swahili language and African cultural learning center. This also involved consultation and some program development for other East Africa languages. There was an international aspect to my work formally from 1982, when I began to serve as a consultant, working from my base at the BLC.
This involved many languages in countries over Africa, seminars and conferences, evaluation of learning programs and training of staff in various countries. I also served as a consultant for several international agencies and some commercial agencies involved in language and culture training.
From 1991, this international focus became my primary work, and I continued in that through 1997. During these years cultural history was a major component of the courses I taught and materials I wrote. This gradually moved towards more research in ethnic identities in Africa, ultimately leading to the establishment of a research network and a virtual research center operated from Nairobi.
After 1997, I relocated to Cyprus, where ethnic research was more the focus than language. In over three years in Cyprus, my wife Edith and I gained some basic facility with Modern Greek. In my Bible study, I enjoy using the Greek New Testament in biblical and modern Greek.
The Romance of Romance
With my extensive background in Spanish and a strong foundation in French, other Romance languages were a pleasant excursion of language expansion.
Preparing for travel through Europe after our first two years in Africa, I decided to learn Italian, with a "teach yourself" book with good phonetic representations. Travelling with my wife in several European countries in the summer of 1973, I had many rewarding experiences in Italy. Two years earlier in Rome, I had had to limp along with my Spanish and a lot of language negotiation with sympathetic Romans!
I was introduced to Portuguese in a night course while in graduate school at Southern Methodist University. This one-semester course was enough to give me a foundation to use in traveling in Portugal, and later in Mozambique for my consultation work with linguists and language teachers.
I have had opportunities to read other Romance languages, like Romanian and Rhaeto-Romansch, Gallego and Catalán, which I can use incidentally in research or other settings.
Similarly, beginning with Swahili and Kikuyu, I began to expand into the broad family of Bantu languages, as part of my work in evaluating learning needs and establishing programs in various countries. Thus I have a general reading proficiency in several major Bantu languages, with a lower oral facility. The latter is hard to maintain without ongoing use and reinforcement.
I have found great reward in extensive reading and teaching in African Cultural History and Bantu History and Comparative Linguistics. I've drawn upon my interests and skills in Comparative Linguistics to provide analyses and guidance for learners of many African languages.
One other language I gained some fluency in is Luo, a non-Bantu, Nilotic language. This provided good contrasts in worldview to the Bantu language-thought structure. I gained only basic facility in another Nilotic language, Maasai, also a rewarding challenge, but much harder.
I have had a passing introduction to many other languages at the analysis or basic level, such as Korean, Japanese, Amharic and Tigrinya. Ah, so many languages, so little time!
Languages in Faith
I have been involved with languages since childhood, so of course my faith expression has been multilingual. Besides Swahili and Kikuyu, other languages I have used in worship or other public settings include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Maasai and Nyakyusa.
Now ends this tale of tongues. Thanks for your interest!
Introduction More OBJ Info ***
OBJ's Short Biographical Resume Dr. Obiwan's Computing History
So Many Opportunities in One Lifetime Living and Working in Kenya
OBJ Educational Background "Where Am I From?"
Check out my interests in the following web sites I manage.
The Virtual Research Centre
This article last revised 25 January 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.