Student Connects Cultures Through Language

Describe Image HereFebruary 23 (Jackson) - Belhaven senior Gary LeMottee wants to connect the world through language. His love of linguistics led him to Belhaven University where he is majoring in International Studies. The program gave him the opportunity to study abroad in Port Villa, Vanuatu over the summer. In only three months, LeMottee researched, learned and translated the national language, Bislama, to then share stories and books with locals.

LeMottee teamed up with Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) International for his study abroad program because they serve worldwide communities in language development. SIL International saw LeMottee’s potential at deciphering language and immediately put him to work.

Living in the city, village and jungle, LeMottee began learning Bislama by just talking to local villagers. “Some of the first words I learned where, ‘How do you say this?’ I would point at objects and ask strangers how to pronounce the words in Bislama. I would then record and write it down on my iPhone notes app to practice it later.”

Bislama is an oral language more than a written language and many cannot read; audio recordings are the best way for locals to enjoy books. LeMottee had the task of sifting through and translating each line of text from the book Pilgram’s Progress by John Bunyan. After each chapter was formatted and reviewed, it was time to record.  LeMottee gathered and worked with local villagers who would read and record lines of story text in Bislama. 

After translations were reviewed and music was added, SIL International distributed the audiobooks. LeMottee added, “We also put the audiobook on a solar powered MP3 player then gave them to tribes so they could listen.”

The radio has played a vital role in giving the villagers the opportunity to hear stories. The people of Vanuatu consider literature from other countries a treasure and have a radio station dedicated to broadcasting stories read in their language. Each week they will air a new chapter of the book LeMottee translated and recorded.

For LeMottee, this trip was one he had been waiting for a long time. Ever since he was nine, he had always wanted to study languages and be a translator. He is fluent in Spanish, which is his first language, as well as English and now Bislama. His background and appreciation of language began with his mother. “My mom was a linguistics major. She was fluent in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese. She would hand me an Italian or Portuguese dictionary and always encourage me to study.”

Cynthia Leavelle, Chair of International Studies, believes that study abroad programs can give students important real life experiences that can shape and direct their futures. “Studying about the world and its various cultures isn't the same as going there. Nothing could do more to open one's understanding to both the similarities and differences of mankind than living and working in another culture, not just visiting.”

According to Leavelle, the benefits of linguistic focus can pay off for her students, especially LeMottee.It is not difficult to get people from other countries who are fluent in English, but Americans who are fluent in other languages are rarer and are getting rarer. Being fluent in a language such as Chinese, Bislama, Korean or Russian coupled with cultural awareness and sensitivity could open up a lot of possible careers.”

Sharing stories is something LeMottee is passionate about. He wants to use his skills to share stories with tribes who can’t read. “I want to go back to Vanuatu for a few years and translate more books and short stories.  After that I would like to work with the United Nations, UNICEF or work in educational translation in different countries, especially third world countries.” LeMottee wants to earn his Master in Linguistics at Florida International University or Biola University and then earn his Ph. D in Linguistics

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