Dordt College News

Oudman feels wired for language

May 18, 2011

Adrianna Oudman has always liked languages.

As she grew up she had regular exposure to languages other than English: her grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands and her family regularly hosted international exchange students.

She even remembers feeling deprived, as a child, because her relatives in Canada had two official languages. When she started taking linguistics courses in college, she recalls thinking, “This is what I’ve been looking for!”

“God just wired me for language,” she says, with a smile.

Senior Spanish major Adrianna Oudman has spent several summers, breaks, and a semester immersed in the language of other cultures. She has worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators and spent a semester in Nicaragua at the Nehemiah Center. There she worked with Rakel Jaentske, who works with an HIV/AIDS program and Luz Urania Largaespada, the director of the Nehemiah Center's Ezra Team for development and training.Oudman has majors in Spanish and theology missions and a minor in linguistics. She knew that she’d have to do a senior independent study for her linguistics minor, so she’s been thinking about what she wanted to learn more about as she moved through her minor.

“I felt all along that I wanted to know more about how language shapes a society,” she says. She knew, for example, that in many languages the word used for a group often reverts to the male form and wondered whether there were cultures in which this wasn’t true. She knew from her summer volunteer work with Wycliffe Bible translators how important it is to translate the Bible into people’s “heart” language if they are to take it to heart. In the end, convinced of the value of languages, she decided to explore whether anything is being done to save dying languages.

“Language is so much a part of culture,” she says. “You can’t really have one without the other.” That’s because each language has ways of seeing the world that those who don’t know the language can’t quite grasp. So when a language dies, something more than another language is lost—a part of world culture is lost.

“We can easily assume that people think the same ways we do if we know only our own language and culture, but such things as the order of sentences and even prefixes and suffixes also show how a society thinks—and they shape the way its speakers think and live in the future,” Oudman says.

For example, in English, where the subject is placed first, then the verb, then the object, the individual is usually of first importance. Languages that place the object first often place more emphasis on the community—on the “other.” Such differences then help retain cultural values in the next generation.

Languages also have ways of saying things that can’t really be said in any other language because it is unique to a certain perception of the world.

Oudman tells a story of scientists who wanted to learn more about a specific jungle cat. Their work hit a dead end until they found someone who spoke a minority language in the area where the cat lived. The tribe knew how to find the animal and had words to describe it.

People’s identity is closely tied to their language, says Oudman. Research shows that the children of people who give up their language for economic or other reasons suffer consequences. Like adopted children searching for their biological parents, children who have lost their primary language often face identity crises.

So how does the world keep languages alive? How do people revitalize and document dying languages?

Oudman found a small group led by a Ph.D. student in Leipzig, Germany, that is currently trying to revitalize and document the Nluu language, a complicated South African Bushman language that is the last of its family of languages. Although it is no longer spoken within the culture, five or six people still know how to speak it.

Nluu is a complicated language with seventy-three consonants, including 45 clicks. It’s 32 vowel sounds are built on five basic vowels. Because of its complexity, it is a fascinating study to linguists who are trying to document its use.

“The Nluu people are proud of their language but the younger generation, plagued by AIDS and in survival mode are not learning it because they don’t need to,” says Oudman.

Oudman’s independent study didn’t help save or document a dying language but it did give her a much better sense of the kinds of work linguists do and the kind of challenges they face. She learned more about how much language matters—to people, to a culture, to the world, and to God’s kingdom. And she’s inspired to look for ways to keep working with and studying and promoting language.


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