A Visit from My Papua New Guinean Father

Lise Dobrin, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia


“Someday a person from the village can help with the Tok Pisin translations.” This off-hand comment by my colleague Daniel Pitti, a programmer and project designer at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology for the Humanities, struck me like an arrow. We were discussing our collaborative project, the Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive, which documents the Arapesh language of northern Papua New Guinea that is slowly being abandoned by its speakers in favor of Tok Pisin, the country’s lingua franca.

This blog post tells the story of where Daniel’s comment led.

Until a few years ago I corresponded with my Arapesh relatives through letters. But with the building of cell towers across PNG, that began to change. Even before Papua New Guineans had smart phones, Digicel was selling special Facebook-enabled phones that allowed people to communicate at a distance in new ways. When the great Arapesh leader Bernard Narokobi died in 2010, I broke through my own technology barrier and got on Facebook, desperate for some way to share in the communal mourning. But it took a while for this new form of contact to begin impacting my work. Perhaps the most important development, as described in Dobrin and Holton 2013, is that it put me in better touch with the village diaspora in the PNG capital Port Moresby, a sub-community with whom I did not have strong ties before.

Among my new Arapesh correspondents in Port Moresby was my village brother Jonathan. So I decided to try something. I sent him a link to a short recording I had made of our mother Scola telling a story. The recording plays in a browser window while the transcript scrolls down line by line. The story relates how Jonathan’s younger brother Timothy had crawled away as a baby and fallen down a latrine, evidently led there by some malevolent spirit. Jonathan logged in one day at work, listened to the story, and emailed me back a Tok Pisin translation. He also expressed his pleasure at seeing and hearing his village language on the internet. Tok Pisin translations would add enormous value to the archive, enabling Jonathan’s children, who do not know much Arapesh, to listen to their grandmother’s words while reading them in a form they could understand.

Emboldened by the success of this experiment, I proposed to UVa’s Center for Global Innovation and Inquiry to bring to the university a special kind of international scholar: a fluent speaker of Arapesh who could help translate Arapesh texts while also serving as the native speaker consultant for our Linguistic Field Methods course. The speaker I proposed to bring was Jonathan’s father, Jacob Sonin, who had adopted me into his family when I first came to the village to study the language. When the proposal was funded, I communicated with Jacob by way of Jonathan and other relatives living in town. Their help was pivotal: they flew Jacob to Port Moresby and housed him while he waited for his visa interview at the US embassy; they arranged for his overnight with relatives in Australia on the way here, and they bought him clothes for the long, cold flight. Applying for the visa was harrowing and costly, and until the moment he stepped off the plane I truly did not know if the plan would come to fruition. I now look back on Jacob’s visit as nothing short of a miracle. Not just how well it went, but that we made it happen at all.

Jacob arrived at Dulles Airport on January 26th, during a blizzard, at night. From Jacob’s point of view, the timing of the visit in the middle of winter could not have been worse. He found the cold almost unbearable, and the leafless trees sad. His long underwear, sweater, scarf, hooded coat, and gloves felt oppressively heavy on his body. The repeated snowstorms we had during his ten-week visit terrified him: I think he feared we would be swallowed up by the snow, which he called kukum dədəgoim ‘strong fog’. When temperatures rose and the snow started melting he marveled to see it transform into water. I explained that in a few months the world would be green again and we would all walk around in t-shirts and flip flops, but I’m not sure he believed it.

Papa Jacob leaving the University early on a snow day


Papa Jacob leaving the University early on a snow day


Jacob arrived carrying one small backpack, which, apart from his paperwork and a change of socks, contained only gifts for us. My husband, Ira Bashkow (who not entirely coincidentally is an anthropologist), took him shopping for clothes and coached him on strategies for getting along in the strange new environment. We had taken our two bar-mitzva age children, Elie and Hannah, to visit the village in 2013, so they appreciated the significance of what was happening when Jacob came to stay with us two years later. They were wonderful guides, and engaged with him solicitously as grandchildren should. Hannah dutifully served him his tea after dinner each night. We ate more sweet potatoes and rice than we usually do that winter. Having spent his life growing root crops (yams, taro, sweet potatoes) and greens, Jacob was impressed by the enormous variety of vegetables we enjoy year round. Every time we introduced a new one he would say kainkain apig! ‘So many different kinds of vegetables!’ The swiss chard was his favorite so we cooked it often.

Nearly the entire contents of Papa Jacob's luggage


Nearly the entire contents of Papa Jacob’s luggage


Papa Jacob with his 'barahanin' Elie in Charlottesville


Papa Jacob with his barahanin Elie in Charlottesville


Papa Jacob with his 'barahokikw' Hannah cutting brussels sprouts off the stalk


Papa Jacob with his barahokwikw Hannah cutting brussels sprouts off the stalk


But mostly we went to work. While of course I know how much we work, I was never so conscious of it as I was while observing our lives through Jacob’s eyes. We set our alarms and rush out of the house just as the sun rises. We run errands, get the kids to school, and then go buy groceries. We go to our offices, type on our computers, deliberate in meetings, and then head home again to cook, finish up our work, crash, and do it all again the next day. Being pressured to quickly go, come, and work was probably the most unpleasant part of Jacob’s foray into our world. He arrived with the impression that the people in America live easy lives, but by the time he left that impression was gone.

During the day while I was meeting students and keeping up with my responsibilities Jacob went to my office and sat alongside my brilliant research assistant, Amanda Glass, listening to Arapesh texts and translating them line by line into Tok Pisin. (Along with my family and the relatives in Port Moresby, Amanda is one of the miracle-workers in this story.) Amanda, who has a BA in Linguistics from UVa, knew a lot of Tok Pisin from her four years working as my assistant, but she had never tried to actually speak it. But it was Jacob’s language and speaking it now became part of her job.

Originally we imagined Jacob sitting quietly at a desk, reviewing transcripts and writing out translations. But sitting alone for long stretches of time is not something PNG villagers are used to, and as soon as we actually tried it we realized it made no sense. So the method we developed went as follows: Amanda would play the first few minutes of a recording to orient Jacob to the speakers and the topic, and then they would work their way through it line by line, with him providing the translation while she typed it up. Sometimes she would ask him questions about the text, and their conversation would veer off into notetaking. On breaks they would chat and drink tea. A devout Christian, Jacob is very interested in religion, so they talked a lot about that. Over the course of the visit they got through six and half hours of recordings in four different Arapesh dialects. After Jacob left we time-aligned them with the transcripts in ELAN, and they now form part of the archive.

Jacob and Amanda taking a break from work


Jacob and Amanda taking a break from work


Serving as the native speaker consultant in Linguistic Field Methods was another one of Jacob’s roles. I taught the class on a compressed schedule: we only met for about two thirds of the semester, but with long twice-weekly meetings. We started before Jacob arrived in the U.S. with an IRB submission and database planning. We also did a crash course in Melanesian culture which the students seemed to find riveting. Appreciating what a remarkable opportunity this was, the students were reverent when Jacob joined us in early February. In Arapesh fashion they called him babwen ‘grandfather’, with Jacob reciprocating (again in Arapesh fashion) with their names.

One surprise for me was Jacob’s skill with English. Given the sophistication of the English vocabulary he regularly inserts into his Tok Pisin, I had the impression that he must speak English fluently. But that was not the case. Nor did the English we speak in the US ever sound quite right to him, because he was used to listening to Australians. At his request I got him an ESL tutor, and he took his weekly sessions with her very seriously. But although his English improved greatly over the course of the visit (as did Amanda’s Tok Pisin and my Arapesh!), I still found myself serving as interpreter at times during class. This would have been an excellent opportunity to try teaching field methods monolingually (as Hannah Sarvasy describes in her forthcoming CLS article “Monolingual Fieldwork in and beyond the Classroom”). But I already had enough experimental pedagogy going on.

Monolingual demonstration on the first day of field methods class


Monolingual demonstration on the first day of field methods class


I was amazed, and frankly somewhat humbled, by the great deal students were able to learn about Arapesh sound structure, grammar, and even narrative organization in the eight short weeks they had to work with the language. But most educational for the students was the encounter it gave them with cultural differences in language use and notions about language use. For example, when we took Jacob for a walk outside the building with our field notebooks in hand, students were shocked by his sensitivity to ground slope as evidenced by his choice of verbs and other spatial markers. Cars that were for us parked ‘across’ the street were categorized as ‘down’ for him because of the (to us hardly perceptible) difference in elevation between them and where we stood. The students were also surprised when Jacob resisted providing verb forms for assertions for which he had no direct evidence. “Today I feel cold,” a student asked. “Tomorrow I will ___?” Jacob would not fill in the blank. He said, “How can we know what we will feel tomorrow? Tomorrow hasn’t come yet.” This was one of many moments during the class when the students would look up at me seeking confirmation that something unimaginable really did just happen.

After seeing Jacob onto the plane at Dulles in April, my husband, kids, and I had a spontaneous group hug. It was difficult to see him go, but we were relieved that he had thrived while in our care. When we got word from the family in Port Moresby that Jacob had arrived home safely, our thoughts began turning to what it all meant. Jacob went home having seen for himself what “development” looks like, how Jews really worship (he went to synagogue with us a few times – all our prayers are in Hebrew!), and how human-like gorillas are (one of the highlights of his trip was a visit to the National Zoo). Between his translation work with Amanda and his participation in the field methods course, I think he understood for the first time what my interest in his language was really all about. Some months later I heard from Jacob’s son Jonathan that he spent most of the honorarium he brought home on a chain saw which he was using to cut planks for a new church in the village. The introduction of new churches has led to some social tensions in the village, so this is not something I would have chosen to support. But that’s how it goes when you get involved in other people’s lives: regardless of the outcomes you hope it will have, in the end it’s up to them what they make of it.

As for the field methods students, I’ll end this long blog post by sharing some of their final reflections on the course:

“One of the most challenging aspects of doing this type of work was realizing that the paper I’m producing is going to do nothing for Jacob or anyone else who speaks his language. I want to do more somehow, and even my grammar I think will probably never be complete enough to be of much use, even to someone who understands the terminology and symbols I use. It sounds silly but I can’t help but think that in addition to a grammar, what I really should be making is a dictionary to keep all these words safe from time!” —Casey Boyette

“It was such a head trip when we tried to elicit forms and he responded… as if he were himself rather than the person asking for the form. (We must have heard him say ñə ‘2sg’ for eik ‘1sg’ a hundred times.) It was a very real, mildly frustrating reminder that we’re so abstract in the way we use and reason about language. I found myself often thinking about that and his refusal to say that the (hypothetical!) dog would be staying tomorrow because ‘he doesn’t know [what the dog will do]’. [In] some respects we and Jacob were truly a world apart.” —Luke Gessler

“By far… the most enriching part of this class was being able to talk with babwen ‘grandfather’, to even have a babwen, and learn about his life, his family, and his home. The meaning of Arapesh (or in babwen’s dialect, arapec) pretty accurately sums up my feelings about this whole experience. We speak arapeciñ baraiñ, ‘friends’ language’, the language that has brought this group of people together under stress and excitement and genuine joy at receiving the chance to be a part of babwen’s family and his memories. We will probably never have a working proficiency of this language, given our time constraints and simple lack of sufficient vocabulary, but I will always tell people about my babwen, and ask them ñauwosik ‘are you alright?’, and end my questions with aka wak (and honestly be thinking about this noun class system for years to come) because this is eikic arapeciñ baraiñ ‘MY friends’ language’ and eikim urukum mor um arapeciñ baraiñ ‘My heart will stay inside [I will remember] my friends’ language’.” —McKenna Hughes

“I would be interested to know if linguists ever have difficulty keeping their informants. We had the luxury of essentially ‘holding Jacob hostage’ as he was dependent upon Lise, being so far away from home. In a field setting I could imagine a scenario in which informants who do not reap the expected benefits of cooperation become slippery and scarce. I supposed it is the job of the field linguist to make sure that the project is beneficial to the other party in some way.” —Michael Jones

“[W]e were lucky enough to be able to work with someone whose native culture was extremely different from our own. This both provided me the chance to learn first-hand about Melanesian culture, something I was heretofore unfamiliar with, but also resulted in extremely interesting linguistic data, and demonstrated how interconnected language and culture can be. The best example of this—and one of my favorite parts of the this class—was the frog story we elicited from him. His interpretation of the story as merely unconnected images and his surprising explanations of certain elements I did not realize could be viewed as ambiguous, such as the frog sitting inside the jar or the bed being inside the house. The showed us how unnatural it is for an Arapesh person to put together an irrelevant sequence of events based on drawings on paper.” —Katie Lake

“I came into the class not fully convinced of the practical merit of preserving endangered languages. My thinking was essentially, ‘If this language change is happening on its own, why should we step in to stop it?’ And I’ve since realized that the reason this language change is happening in the first place is is the generations of Westerners before us, particularly those in the business of colonization. But the thing that really convinced me was the look on Jacob’s face when we said something correctly in Arapesh, and knowing that the reason behind it was that he hardly hears his language from my generation in the village. That alone had such a personal impact on me.” — Brady Mabe



I really enjoyed reading this post and I am looking forward to seeing more contributions from other members of CELP as the blog continues.

Moving piece. I especially enjoyed the comments from students at the end; this experience was a game-changer for some of them.