LINGUIST List 9.482

Sun Mar 29 1998

Sum: SLA in "Amistad"

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. Dan Maxwell, SLA in "Amistad"

Message 1: SLA in "Amistad"

Date: Sat, 28 Mar 1998 17:39:31 -0500
From: Dan Maxwell <>
Subject: SLA in "Amistad"

Some weeks ago I asked for information concerning the communication problem
in the film "Amistad". This involved the state of Second Language
Acquisition at the time for languages like Mende, a West African language..
I got just two responses, one based on extrapolation from the writer's one
experience with Chinese to the situation in the movie and one based on
research about this situation. These are appended in full below. Thanks
to my two respondents, Sean Jensen and Chris Corcoran.

Dan Maxwell

Hi Dan,

I haven't seen the film, but the phenomenon you describe strikes a chord
with me (and many of my friends) from my own experience. I suspect that the
communication "barrier" is largely a non-linguistic phenomenon: I speak
Mandarin Chinese (I majored in it at University (many moons ago), and
currently live in Guangzhou), but still occasionally come across Chinese
locals who simply refuse to believe that I am speaking Chinese to them, and
refuse to understand (or refuse to let themselves understand) what I'm
saying. It's not a question of accent, as my training was thorough, and I
never have this problem over the telephone. I suspect it is my obviously
"foreign" appearance that triggers the "oh god, I hope he doesn't want to
communicate, because I only speak Chinese and he's foreign, so by definiton
he can't."-reaction before I've opened my mouth.

Make of this what you will.... I hope it provides some extra food for


- --
Sean Jensen
tel/fax: +86 20 8759 6961
snail: Unit 13b, Block 2, The Greenery, 55-79 Huayang Jie, Tiyu Dong Lu,
Tianhe, Guangzhou 510620, China

- -------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Dan Maxwell, 

I really felt that the image of Prof. Gibbs in the film was unfair. My
understanding comes from having read four or five histories of the Amistad
event (though about seven or eight years ago now) and having studied its
history while in Sierra Leone. Perhaps I am overly sympathetic because he's
a linguist. 

During this period, the supporters were having a difficult time because the
only version of events was coming from Ruiz and Montes. They were desperate
to find a translator and they didn't even know what language they were
looking for. Remember the claim was that the slaves were just being
transported from Cuba, so the abolisionists didn't have any information
about where the captives were from along the coast, let alone any
information about what languages they spoke. According to their captors,
they spoke Spanish, but were simply refusing to do so. 

My impression was that Gibbs had a variety of vocabulary lists that he read
in the hopes that one of the captives would recognize something. Failing at
that, he came up with what I thought was the rather ingenious technique of
eliciting data. He got them to count. It didn't really matter whether they
were counting or what they were doing, but that several of them produced
this little counting song. Gibbs was savvy enough to recognize that this
was some sort of conventionalized series of words that was short enough for
him to memorize and conventionalized enough that it might still be
recognizable despite Gibbs' mispronunciation. (They would allow any of the
captives to go to the wharf with Gibbs.) He then went to the wharf and
paced back and forth repeating ita, fele, sawa--sawa, naani, loolu, etc.
until someone recognized it. It was only when he met Covey that anyone knew
that these were Mende numbers. 

As for people learning languages from each other, I can tell you that the
representation of Sengbe Pieh and the others during the period of the
supreme court trial was really silly (linguistically speaking). At that
point they had been in the US for three years and all spoke quite a bit of
English and wrote a fair amount as well. This is fairly well documented. I
don't know if Gibbs or anyone else worked to learn Mende. I'd like to check
that out myself. During this period (1817-1835), there were couple of
grammars and readers of Mende written in Sierra Leone by Church Missionary
Society missionaries, one of whom taught Covey, the translator for the
captives, to read and write. 

Hope this is at least part of the answer you were looking for. 

Chris Corcoran
Christine Corcoran
Univ of Chicago
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