“Speaking is easy but communicating is a miracle.”
This phrase requires no explanation for a Peace Corps Volunteer or anybody who has moved to another country without ever previously studying the language spoken there.
Language learning is generally a very big part of Peace Corps service and while it can be frustrating at times, it’s also been one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most. When you are finally able to communicate what you want to say it is thee most amazing feeling-totally worth the weeks spent miming, pointing to things, and smiling/laughing when you give and up and concede that you’re not going to understand them and they’re not going to understand you for the moment. Like the quote says, it feels like a miracle! I’ve often described it as the Red Sea parting. Did I really just communicate in a language I just started learning a few months ago??? How did I just do that??
I grew up speaking Spanish and started learning French in high school so studying foreign languages is not new to me. But aside from some words or phrases that have no direct translation I’ve found the structures to be pretty similar. Learning local languages such as Bambara in Mali and Pular here in Guinea, however, really threw me for a loop and introduced me to radically different ways of communicating ideas.
Bambara is the lingua franca in Mali. In most West African Peace Corps countries volunteers receive training in French and must attain a certain level of fluency before moving on to a local language. This was not the case in Mali. During the 10 weeks of training we were working solely on Bambara. All of our language instructors spoke French but we had to attain a certain level of Bambara before studying French or any other local language.
In Mali, there were only 2 people in my village of 350 people who could speak French so I knew I really needed to work on Bambara if I was going to get anything done. It wasn’t a super hard language but it required me moving away from looking for direct translations for words and instead using what you knew to communicate things you didn’t know the word for. For example to say butter one volunteer said “misi tulu nono” which literally translates to “cow oil milk”. Don’t ask me how but his work partner understood this to mean “butter”. Also it is highly contextual. I remember asking my counterpart how to say “almost” and he asked me what I wanted to say because it would vary depending on the circumstance.
My experience with Bambara was interesting in the fact that being able to communicate came before being able to understand most of what other people were saying. I could let people in my community know “I am going into town. I’ll come back today” or “I need to get water”, etc but I was pretty bad at knowing what people were talking about when they were talking amongst themselves in Bambara.
In Bambara, there are no conjugations for verbs. People who have had to power through and learn a seemingly endless list of French conjugations will especially appreciate this. Also, rather than having 4 different ways of referring to yourself or stating ownership (me, I, my, mine) in Bambara all of these are the same word. They will take on different meaning depending on the context. To say “Your dad” you would “You dad” (I fa in Bambara.
The following are some of my favorite words in Bambara. I will provide the literal meaning but try to guess what the word is in English. The answers are at the end of this post.
Ex: San= sky ji=water sanji=sky water (Answer: rain)
- Yiri= tree, den=children yiriden= tree children
- Kono=inside or stomach boli=run konoboli=stomach running
- Bo= poop da=mouth or door boda=poop door
- Koko=salt ji=water kokoji=salt water
- Nege=iron soo=horse negeso=iron horse
- So=house mogow- people Somogow= house people
- nako=garden fen=things nakofen: garden things
Koko=salt dugu=city kokodugu=city of salt, also how you say north in Bambara
Worrodugu=city of kola nuts, also how you say south in Bambara
Koronfe-facing towards the Quran/Mecca, how you say East
To tell someone they are smart you woul say I hakili ka di. Hakili=mind ka di= good. You have a good brain.
To tell someone to calm down/stop worrying you would say “I hakili sigi” sigi=to sit. So you are telling their mind to sit.
One of my favorite words that I learned was something my host family would call their 4 year old daughter. Mogolantorro. Mogo=person torro=problem. It was basically a word for someone who bothers or doesn’t have anything good to offer. She didn’t take it too personally, she would turn around and use it to insult her grandma lol. That little girl was really crazy but I loved it.
One of the things I loved about Bambara and miss dearly is the blessings. While there are blessings in Pular they are not used on a daily basis the way that they were in Mali.
One word to summarize Pular: Verbs.
There is a book for French verbs called 501 French verbs. If there was such a book for Pular it would be called 5001 Pular verbs. Or maybe 500,001 Pular verbs. Seriously the Peules love their verbs.
- Instead of adjectives Pular likes to use “stative verbs”. Being hungry, being thirsty, being tired, being sick, something being big or small. These are all different verbs.
- If you are washing your hands, your face, your feet you are not conjugating the verb “to wash”. Instead there are different verbs for each of these actions.
- Eating breakfast, lunch, dinner= 3 different verbs.
Due to a last minute site change, I received one class of Pular before I was sent to my village. My strategy for Pular has been not to stress too much and just ask about new words I hear. I’ve heard it referred to as “the Chinese of West Africa” and also the hardest local language so I’ve tried to learn it bit by bit so as not to get frustrated and give up. Most people in my village speak French so even if I didn’t try I would be able to talk to most people. But I was hoping to pick up some Pular even while I was in Mali and it’s a beautiful language so I am trying to learn at least the basics. Also I’ve heard its one of the most spoken languages in West Africa so maybe I’ll get to use it afterwards if I continue working in this region. And if all those reasons aren’t enough, I have a posse of teenagers I hang out with who like to jump between French and Pular and I like to have an idea of what they’re laughing at. By no means do I speak it well but at least 50% of the time I am able to communicate what I’m trying to say even if its with the vocab of a preschooler and I have learned enough to be able to make people laugh… intentionally. =) The use of stative verbs versus adjectives scared me at first but it has been much easier to recognize new verbs when you hear them because you’ll recognize the endings (-i, -aa, -aaki, -alli, -akka, -ata, -oto, -otaako, -ete, -etaake..).
Noteworthy Mistakes in Pular
- One time I was joking with someone and tried to say “I’m going to hit you”. Instead I said “Mi sofay maa” which means I’m going to pee on you. “Mi sofinte”=”I’m goign to hit you”. Soffingol= to hit, soffugol= to urinate
- If I was visiting neighbors, I would try to ask people if I could help with something and they would direct me to their bedroom. Instead of saying “Mido faala wallude” (I want to help) I was saying “Mido faala wallade”(I want to lay down). Wallugol= to help, wallagol=to lay down.
In both languages and in all the other local languages in West Africa I’ve dabbled in (Wolof in Senegal & Susu in western Guinea) greetings are huge. People will ask “How did you sleep?”, “How is your family?”, “Is there no evil there?”/”Is there peace?” to which the response is always “Peace only” or “No problem at all”. It is something that has always piqued my curiosity. Instead of asking “Is everything going well?” they ask “Is nothing bad?” It would seem that they’re either trying to see the glass half full or they are always bracing themselves for bad news.
One of the other things I’ve noted in learning local languages is that while many people will intermingle French and local language they will often Frambarize or Frular it. For example, to say I’m late in French you say Je suis pressé, In Bambara you can say Ne presélendon. And there are verbs in Pular that are obviously French but they will add an –ugol to the end and transform it. One might look at this and say that something is being lost because instead of a new word being created it is being borrowed from French but I’ve find it pretty remarkable how they take these words and integrate them into their own language.
While some of these languages may not be super “useful” outside of West Africa it’s fun being able to put a smile on people’s faces simply by greeting them in their local language. They love it so much. And aside from allowing you to better understand the culture, I don’t know any other part of the world where people will be more encouraging or make you feel more rewarded for your efforts.