Language learning in the field

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A few days ago, someone asked me a question about a common situation that's rarely discussed: How can an adult learn to communicate in a language they don't know, without access to courses and books and instructors? And what if the problem isn't just lack of foresight and preparation, because no courses or books or instructors exist for the language or dialect in question?

This question's background is an international development project, where many of the people to be reached are illiterate speakers of undocumented and unwritten languages, and are also often not fluent in the local lingua franca.

Some people may be skeptical of various aspects of the premise. But let's grant it and try to address the question.

Refugees, migrants, explorers, traders, missionaries and conquerors have been dealing with versions of this problem for millennia. But I don't know of any systematic discussion of solutions before the mid-20th century, when Ken Pike developed and taught his monolingual elicitation techniques.

Some aspects of Pike's approach assume an interest in linguistic analysis, and a basic practical understanding of the issues involved. He elicits a few nouns (rock, leaf, …), a few counting words (one, three, …), and a few words for qualities (white, black, red, green, ...), and then he explores questions like the nature of pluralization, the difference between modifying and predicating adjectives, the existence of modifier-head agreement, and so on — of course leaving open the possibility that these categories and relations are not quite as he expects them to be. Along the way, he develops and tests hypotheses about the phonological inventory, syllable structures and phonotactics, morphology, word order typology, and so forth.

Traditional approaches to this problem are no doubt generally less analytic, and also in most cases less monolingual — usually there are locals with at least some knowledge of another language shared with the outsiders. And the local language may also be closely-enough related to a known language for cognates to be helpfully available. Most linguistic fieldworkers similarly also take advantage of resources beyond monolingual elicitation, even though they share Pike's analytic interests and methods. (And access to polyglot helpers seems especially likely in the case of a modern economic development project.)

But where does this leave us in answering the original question?

I've watched talented linguistic fieldworkers sit down with a speaker of unknown Language X, and after a few hours they're chatting happily away — in a semi-pidgin variety of X, but still…

Can this ability be taught to non-linguists? (Or even to most linguists?) If so, what should the instruction be like? How much linguistics should be part of the instruction? How crucial is prior knowledge of a related language?

What about the role of individual differences in aptitude? Can only a few super-talented individuals succeed at the task of quickly acquiring minimal communicative competence in an unwritten language? Or is this something that almost everyone can do, even if some people go further faster than others?

Update — I've heard positive reviews of Pike's monolingual demonstrations, but here's some testimony indicating that he was mortal:

I had heard about Pike's monolingual elicitation from the time I was s student. In the mid 1980s we finally were able to invite him to <University> to do the demonstration. Your experience (or perhaps a video you may have seen) sounds like it was more successful than what we saw. It was as you describe (he came in with a branch, a rock etc.), but he made very little progress in the one hour. The language was Kinande. At the end he said a few things about how the language worked (some of which was quite wrong), and announced, "I don't think it's Bantu."


  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    There is a fascinating video here of Dan Everett demonstrating the monolingual elicitation that Mark discusses.

  2. Pat Barrett said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

    Given the movement of people throughout the history of the world, we should be able to find a group some where, some time, who failed to learn the new language surrounding them. The exceptions do indeed prove the rule: the masses of slaves in the Atlantic Slave Trade who were deprived of close contact with speakers of the so-called acrolect, i.e. the language of the slaveholders and supporting population. Even then, pidgins and then creoles developed quickly based on limited access to the acrolect. So where and when can we find people who actually do learn a language in a classroom using textbooks filled with grammar rules? Nowhere that I've seen.

  3. Rosie Redfield said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    'a common situation'????

  4. Adrian said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    Whether or not it's a common situation exactly in the terms specified (since lack of access to books/lessons is quite rare these days), it's certainly a common situation that people move to an area and learn the language of that area without the use of books or lessons. Indeed, some language courses attempt to mimic the process.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    @ Pat Barrett:

    So where and when can we find people who actually do learn a language in a classroom using textbooks filled with grammar rules?

    For starters, how about "everywhere that people learn English as a foreign language as part of their basic education" and "everywhere that people take adult-education classes in a foreign/second language"?

    While I can't tell you how many of these people use "textbooks filled with grammar rules," it's a safe bet that they most of them use books that teach grammar. Certainly there's an enormous number of books whose purpose is to (help) teach grammar to ESL and EFL students.

    Of course, if you're asking where do people learn their first language in a classroom using textbooks, the answer is "nowhere."

  6. maidhc said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 1:24 am

    I think there's a difference between being a person surrounded by people who speak another language, where you can learn a lot from observation, and a one-on-one encounter with no common language.

    There's a film based on this topic, Jodie Foster's "Nell", which came out in 1994. How do you communicate with a person whose only language is unknown to anyone else? I expect many here are familiar with it.

    In one of Nino Culotta's books (I think it was Cop this Lot) he describes his Italian father attempting to learn Australian.

    "You see this watch?"

    "Yeah. So what?"

    "There. A watch is a sowat. You see this stick?"

    "Yeah. Bloody big lump of a waddy, isn't it?"


    This parallels the supposed origin of the word "kangaroo".

    The word "kangaroo" derives from the Guugu Yimithirr word gangurru, referring to grey kangaroos. The name was first recorded as "kanguru" on 12 July 1770 in an entry in the diary of Sir Joseph Banks…A common myth about the kangaroo's English name is that "kangaroo" was a Guugu Yimithirr phrase for "I don't understand you." According to this legend, Cook and Banks were exploring the area when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you", which Cook took to be the name of the creature. This myth was debunked in the 1970s by linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people. (Wikipedia-kangaroo)

  7. Charles Antaki said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:13 am

    The kangaroo story crops up in Arrival, which makes it nicely topical (I should quickly say that the linguist hero uses it knowingly, for her own reasons).

    What's interesting though is that the undebunked version works at all. You have to take it that all that goes on in the interaction is the exchange of words – the local informant doesn't shrug, look at their pals, roll their eyes, hesitate, or do anything to indicate that they have no reply. The scene is testament to the logocentric bias of folk linguistics – or of folk linguistic jokes, anyway.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:23 am

    Even if the kangaroo story isn't true, something similar must be at work in the name of the Qu'Appelle River in the Canadian Prairies. A quick search doesn't yield any cute anecdotes, however. Does anyone know the story of this name?

  9. Karen McM said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    I grew up in Saskatchewan and heard this story about the Qu'Appelle Valley as a kid:

    The poem is online at The Legend of Qu'appelle Valley.

    The Qu'Appelle Valley, BTW, has both a Katepwa Lake and an Echo Lake.

  10. Rodger C said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    @Bob Ladd: Isn't that also called Calling River? I took it to be from the sound it makes.

  11. Bob Haut said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    "He elicits a few nouns (rock, leaf, …), a few counting words (one, three, …), and a few words for qualities (white, black, red, green, …), and then he explores questions like the nature of pluralization, the difference between modifying and predicating adjectives, the existence of modifier-head agreement, and so on"

    This sort of describes the approach of the test I took when I enlisted in the Army 50+ years ago, to determine whether I would be sent to what was then called the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. The test was then called the Army Language Aptitude Test; the test they use now, which is similar but not identical, is called the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. This website describes the test (see pages 2 – 3).

  12. Bob Haut said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    Sorry, I left the link out of my previous post. The website is

  13. Yahv0 said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    As for the Qu'Appelle River, the legend goes that the Cree heard a voice in that area, would respond by "Katepwa?" (in Cree, "Qui appelle?" in French, "Who's calling?" in English) and the echo would call back.

  14. John Chew said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 1:01 am

    My father learned most of the languages he speaks by teaching the graduate course in linguistic field methods at the University of Toronto. Each year, he would recruit a native speaker of a language that neither he nor any of the students knew, ask them not to speak any English, and spend the course documenting their language's grammar and vocabulary. I'm pretty sure he considered the skills involved to be fundamental to being an old-school linguist, and he still keeps them honed in his tenth decade.

  15. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    My technique for learning Georgian while I was living/working in Kutaisi for 6 months involved a three part strategy – immersion; daily vocabulary drills, helped out by my host family and native co-workers; and personal, solo study of the language's grammar using a textbook.

    Of course, while not a professional linguist, I am an educated layman with college courses taken up to the graduate level and lots of linguistic knowledge that average speakers don't have so that probably helped a lot.

    I also wouldn't say that I was fluent in spoken Georgian or even adult-level in reading after 6 months, but I definitely acquired conversational ability and was able to understand significant amounts of spoken everyday Georgian.

  16. Gabe Burns said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    As a non-linguist, I wonder what the similarities and differences are in this process (of one person teaching another a language when they have no language in common) when the one with the linguistic expertise is the teacher vs. the student. I know that, for instance, ELL teachers often have to teach languages to students with whom they don't share a language. Is it easier (for someone with linguistic training) to teach a language like this, or to learn one? If one is easier, would it make sense to do that in order to do the other? That is, supposing that it's easier to learn another's language than to teach them yours when you share no language in common, if your eventual goal is to teach them yours anyway, would it be worthwhile to first attempt to learn a bit of theirs, so that you can teach yours through translation? Or vice versa if it's easier to teach, but you want to learn.

  17. richard said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    I learned Indonesian and Manadonese Malay in Manado, with no textbooks–although I did have an Indonesian-English dictionary. I read the daily newspaper (as much a hindrance as anything, given the love Indonesian journalists have for syncretisms…) as well as some YA literature and talked to people. A lot of people. I already spoke more than one language, and had already studied (formally) multiple languages, including Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese before showing up in Indonesia, so I knew how to go about learning language. Technically, though, I'm not a linguist. I'm an ethnomusicologist.

  18. larisa said,

    November 16, 2016 @ 12:30 am

    I'm not a linguist, but I have a one-year-old daughter who is currently learning her first language, and I wonder about the similarities and differences between the way a baby acquires their first language (with no common language between the baby and the parent) and an adult acquiring a second language with no common language between the learner and the native speakers. I also wonder if adult learners can borrow some techniques from babies to improve their ability to learn new languages like this.

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