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The Adventures of a Linguist in Papua New Guinea

The Adventures of a Linguist in Papua New Guinea

  • December 22, 2017

Jonathan hikes to an undocumented village in the Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea.

Jonathan Claussen ’11 holds three arrows, describing them in front of a Moody class of linguistics majors. One arrow has a narrow shaft to penetrate a pig’s lungs and heart. Another is used for fishing. He holds up a third arrow. “What do you think this one is for?” After a pause, he says, “It’s for people. The barbs break off in the person, and it’s lathered with pig blood to cause as much infection as possible.”

Home on a brief furlough, Jonathan says his knowledge of spears and arrows comes from the survey work he’s been doing as an independent missionary linguist with tribes in Papua New Guinea since he graduated from Moody with his Applied Linguistics degree. Such weapons don’t frighten him, though. More often the tribal women and children are afraid of him. “I’m pale like their vegetables, so they think I’m a spirit or one of their ancestors come back from the grave,” he says. “But generally, I’m really welcomed and taken care of.”

On a typical language survey trip, Jonathan spends a couple of weeks or more visiting villages in the jungle and mountains to gather preliminary linguistic data for Bible translation teams who will come after him. Arriving before the afternoon rain showers, he meets with village leaders, speaking in Tok Pisin, a widely used creole language with only about 4,000 words and “a high rate of miscommunication that makes it difficult to go deep doctrinally.” He says his work paves the way for translators and church planters to communicate the Word of God accurately in a tribe’s mother tongue.

An important part of Bible translation is to make sure it’s done in a central dialect that is widely understood throughout a language group. One way Jonathan analyzes a village’s dialect is by placing a card on the ground to represent the main language, and beneath that, a card representing their village. “What other villages speak exactly the same way you do?” he asks. The leaders list nearby villages that speak the same language. Adding more cards, he finds out which villages speak their language a little differently, then lays string around the villages that speak alike. “It’s a very visual concept,” he says. “If you have something they can touch and move around, it streamlines the process and can provide great insight because you’re getting an insider’s perspective, something that is often lost when only analyzing the raw linguistic data.”

He also plays games with the children to assess the language vitality—is this language being learned by the next generation? What language are they using when playing with each other? “A few hundred languages in Papua New Guinea don’t have Bible translations, but some languages are on the way out because of the increasing contact and mixing with other people groups,” he says. “If the language is dying, this information helps Bible translators invest their resources in languages that will be around for a while.”

After collecting data, Jonathan spends a few months in the office writing reports for the agency that commissions his work.

He explains: “Fulfilling the Great Commission in Papua New Guinea is a long and coordinated effort involving language surveyors, pilots, translators, doctors (who keep everyone healthy and fixed up), support teams, organization leaders, and finally, the senders: churches and believers back home who enable myself and others to go!”

The Explorer

Jonathan took his first trip to Papua New Guinea with New Tribes Mission at age 17. While he was a Moody student, he planned a solo trip across the country’s swamplands and mountains. Unrolling a map, he asked Steve Clark, his linguistics professor and former Papua New Guinea missionary, to mark the most remote places. “Are you sure about this?” Clark asked.

John was sure, but recalls, “I had lots of epic blunders out there. Probably the gnarliest one was a canoe crash.” During the trip, he traded his knife for a dugout stand-up canoe. After some particularly heavy rains, the locals advised against canoe travel, but Jonathan needed to catch a plane in a town called Wewak, hundreds of miles away. He made good time with the canoe—until he got caught in a log jam on a flooded river. Sucked under by currents, he popped up on the other side, but the canoe’s nose split. “I lost my food and a lot of stuff, but fortunately not any data I had collected from the interior,” he says. Lesson learned: Listen to the locals.

Unconventional Upbringing

Jonathan’s adventurous spirit was kindled while growing up in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington. “We didn’t have electricity or running water until I was six; we were what they call free-range kids,” says Jonathan, whose dad was a logger and also served as a church volunteer, leading mission trips to Haiti. Instead of video games, Jonathan and his four homeschooled siblings spent extensive time outdoors, learning to build forts, climb mountains, and swing from treetops. Risk came with the territory. “We had lots and lots of stitches,” he says, “but my mom said that a broken arm isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a child.”

Though he had his fair share of tumbles, he says, “I learned to manage fear, assess risk, and discover the limits of my capabilities, which was a springboard for growth.” He also learned resourcefulness, creativity, even ownership (“because when things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself”).

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s dad, who is now senior pastor at Highland Community Church in Cowiche, Washington, taught Jonathan and his siblings “to do things with an eternal perspective; to really consider what you do and the eternal impact it will have,” he says.

Jonathan trusted in Christ as a child and wanted to be a missionary like his uncle in Turkey. With an interest in Bible translation, he came to Moody because of its reputable applied linguistics program but also because of the tuition-paid education. “Guys like me who come from poor backgrounds have a heart to serve God but not the financial means to get through school with high-quality education and training,” explains Jonathan, who helped pay his room and board by starting a window-cleaning business with his brother Dan ’13, a youth ministries major.

Time with Professors

Probably the most valuable thing Moody provided, he says, was access to professors and people who have experience in the field. “Moody is worth it just to meet the professors,” says Jonathan, who sometimes struggled to get good grades. “I have more tenacity than talent. My average was a C-plus or B-minus. But Dr. Elizabeth Lightbody told me something really powerful that I pass on to others: ‘You don’t have to be an A-plus student to be an A-plus missionary.’ ” An indication of a good missionary, he discovered, is to have the heart of a servant.

He also discovered that doing Bible translation would require more sitting than he was willing to do. Survey work, however, suited his personality, so after an internship with SIL in Papua New Guinea, Jonathan graduated, sharing his pictures and ministry passion in small groups to raise support for the field. Surveyors are needed in parts of Africa, Eurasia, and many other places, but Papua New Guinea fit Jonathan’s natural interests. “I love rafting and hiking through remote areas. While doing it, I can serve a greater purpose,” he says. “When you can couple your interests and passions with ministry, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni News.

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