"If your God is so mighty, why doesn't He speak my language?"
A Cakchiquel (Guatemala) man to SIL founder William Cameron Townsend
'Working alongside Grace Tabah is truly a delight. She has a deep desire to grow as a linguist while she serves the people of this region', says SIL linguist Rich Boutwell.
Rich and his wife, Katrina, have been living in Nfume – about ten kilometres south of Misaje, in the North West Region of Cameroon – since 2004. They are linguistics specialists, supervising and facilitating the linguistic work in a cluster of seven languages found in the area.
'Several years ago', recalls Rich, 'we came to the realisation that there was a great deal of linguistic work to be done in this cluster, and we lacked enough people to get the job done as quickly as we wanted. A full-fledged language development programme relies heavily on quality linguistic research from the beginning, so we wanted to provide it in a timely manner without sacrificing quality'.
That's when the Misaje team began researching the possibility of finding help with linguistic analysis on a short-term basis. A colleague got in touch with a contact at the University of Buea, and Grace Tabah was suggested as an excellent candidate for the team to consider. She was in the final stages of completing her MA in linguistics, and was looking for a way to get field experience.
'I had received a firm footing in theoretical linguistics', says Grace. 'I was really delighted to hear of this opportunity to do some practical fieldwork.'
In addition to her education and eagerness to grow as a linguist, there were several other qualities that made Grace particularly well-suited to join the Misaje team. One of these is that she is a native of Ndu, which borders the Misaje cluster of languages.
'Grace has an easy rapport with the people', states Rich, 'and that helps tremendously in many aspects of the work, such as collecting language data, staffing literacy courses, and interfacing with important people in the community'.
Grace initially took on the task – with the help of the language communities themselves – of phonological analysis and orthography development in two of Misaje's languages: Cung and Naami. Nearly two years later, the writing systems have been eagerly embraced by the communities, and the work is in the final stages of review and should be implemented soon.
Grace's professional development has taken her in a stimulating new direction:
'I am currently analysing tone in Cung, which has been a challenge for me. I really enjoy phonology, though, so tone studies are a great opportunity to dig deeper'.
Grace is just one of a number of Cameroonian linguists who have contributed significantly to language development projects in their country These sorts of partnerships can be enormously beneficial to all involved. Language communities and long-term members of language development programmes benefit from the work of Cameroonian linguists fresh out of a degree programme – not to mention their contagious enthusiasm and eagerness to learn – while the developing linguists gain valuable field experience.
'We've really enjoyed working with Grace', summarises Rich, 'and we are certainly open to more collaboration of this sort in the future'.