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My Most Embarrassing Language Flub

Updated: May 29, 2023

When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea, I wanted to get started as quickly as I could with my language study. I was, perhaps, a little too eager and missed an important nugget of knowledge that could have saved me from my most embarrassing language flub.


A visit to town during our first term.

Melanesian Pidgin or Tok Pisin is the trade language of Papua New Guinea. It was the language we used the most in our daily ministry. When we first arrived on the field, I immediately began studying it. There was no official language school, so I used a textbook and met with a veteran missionary language supervisor each week.


Very early in my study, I learned about a little word tag that you place in front of nouns to indicate the foundation of something. For example, if you were to describe your hometown, you would say "as ples." The tag "as" means that the "ples"(place) is not just any place, but the place from which you originated. It is your hometown. You can put that little tag in front of other nouns to accomplish the same thing. A preacher, for example, might use it to explain the source, reason, or original foundation of his sermon.

“I was feeling quite confident and just kept talking, thinking I was really getting it right.”

My plan of attack

In order to learn the language more quickly, I would go outside each day and sit down by the village path. I would practice my language skills with the ladies who would always gather round me. My vocabulary was hugely limited and my syntax and structure were probably more like a three-year old's speech during those early weeks of study. But I tried to communicate every day anyway, and the ladies were always incredibly forgiving when I messed up.


That is, until I messed up that little tag, "as." I thought I was going to have a nice conversation with them about my hometown. I had mastered the sentence structure that went something like this: "My hometown is . . . " All I had to do was fill in the blank with the limited vocabulary words I had learned.


I sat down with my new friends and began to tell them all about my home in America. I wanted to describe what living in a big city was like. It was much harder than I thought because most of the ladies had never been out of their tiny grass-hut-lined village. They could never imagine the hustle and bustle of a large city with all the noise of the people, cars, trucks, and busses. I also attempted to explain snow to these women who lived on the equator. They had never even heard of snow, let alone seen it.


So there I sat, significantly more plump than anyone else in the group and I said, "My hometown is big." I hadn't yet learned how to make comparisons, so I couldn't say, "bigger than your village." I could only use that one sentence pattern I had mastered. So, I continued, even though they were giggling at my child-like attempt.


Next, I tried to describe that my home town had snow, but I didn't know how to explain it. I said, "My hometown is cold and wet." They laughed some more, so I kept going. "My hometown is noisy."


That's when one of the ladies stopped me. By now, most of the ladies were laughing so hard they were wiping away tears from their eyes. Kristina, the lady who stopped me, choked out between guffaws, "You are not saying it right."


Apparently, I misunderstood that little tag, "as." If you don't put a noun after it, it simply means your . . . well, your backside. Your derriere. Um . . . your bottom, fanny, posterior, hiney (I don't know what polite word you use for butt, but whatever you call it, that's what "as" by itself means). And in my eagerness to learn, I didn't understand that first time that I needed the noun "ples" to go with it.


So, there I sat on my plump, "as" saying, "My backside is big. My backside is cold, and wet, and noisy."


Sigh.


What else could I do but laugh with them? As my cheeks turned red (no, not those cheeks, the cheeks on my face) they laughed even more.


But, despite the humiliation, that day became a turning point for me. Kristina determined that I needed a language teacher, and she started coming to my house every afternoon to help me learn my Tok Pisin the right way. Kristina became a dear friend, and our girls loved when we hiked up to her house because she always let them play with her pigs.


My daughter Abby playing with one of Kristina's baby pigs.

With Kristina's help, I was communicating CORRECTLY in no time. But oh, that first flub was a doozy.


I guess through it all, I'm thankful for that utter and complete humiliation. Because of it, I made a new friend, and that new friend helped me finally learn the language. Kristina is a lady very few people will ever meet, but she invested in me and I'm so thankful that God brought her to me. I've always believed that failure is one of the best teachers.

So, that was a big, wet, cold, and noisy lesson I'll never forget.

Do you have any humiliating life lessons that became turning points in your life? I'd love for you to drop me a line below and let me know about. Misery loves company after all!


 

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