On Learning a New Guinea Language

by Eytan Bercovitch, Ph.D.
(Berkeley, CA, USA)

As an anthropologist, I have worked in New Guinea with several of the Papuan Languages. I am a reasonably good speaker of one of them, Tifal, which I have learned quite painfully by living there for a total so far of 3 1/2 years (the people didn't speak any other language so I had a good incentive). Tifal is part of the Trans-New Guinea Phylum and of the Mt. Ok family. There are about 3000 Tifal speakers, about 20,000 Mt. Ok speakers and about 650,000 trans-new guinea speakers. The island of New Guinea with over 800 languages is the most linguistically diverse on earth, with about a quarter of all the world's languages in an area about the size of Texas.


The few examples of truly fluent originally English speakers of Papuan languages are some anthropologist who have been using the language for much of their life.

Here are some reasons for the difficulty I experienced learning Tifal:

1. It is a verb-root-chain inflected language. In other words, it grammatically works by linking one verb root with another in long chains ending with a final (not always present) verb that is fully conjugated. When writing this down it can look like one incredibly long, run-on sentence.

2. There are highly complex rules of inflection, which act (metaphorically) as a sort of glue holding together the chain of verbs.

3. There are some features really unexpected for an English speaker that are hard to understand let alone use. These are quite fascinating so I'll spell a few out:
--in Tifal you are obligated to inflect for the length of time between one action in the verb chain and another (e.g., "immediately after he arrived at the house, he saw his mother" versus "sometime after" or "long after" or "with no time delay" etc.
--you have to inflect for spatial relations between verbs and objects. For example, "pass me that bottle *up across over there* and hand it *down over* to James". There are two kinds of ups (upstream, upslope), two downs (the same as with up) and two across (cross a river versus cross land). Again this is obligatory: you can't say pass the mustard without knowing where the nearest river is in relation to yourself!
--grammatical inflection is also obligatory for how good your information is, if it was directly witnessed or just quoted, etc.

4. There is little congruence of semantics. Much of language is metaphorical as in "he had a blue day" or "he was feeling down". These are simple examples but it can get much more serious when you consider the metaphorical aspects of so many words. When I speak Spanish (or most other indo-european languages) I have a reasonable chance of guessing if a metaphor will "translate". With most other major world languages, it less useful but there is the help of cultural and historical links including imported words and metaphors. But don't expect anything will work in Tifal!

It is my guess that the "most difficult language in the world" for an English speaker most likely is either in New Guinea or Africa. In Africa, I'd mention languages using "click" sounds that you can only learn correctly if you start learning in infancy.

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