on language, food, humility, and humor.
A Swiss man, looking for directions, pulls up at a bus stop where two Americans are waiting. “Entshuldigung, können Sie Deutsch sprechen?” he asks. The two Americans just stare at him. “Excusez-moi, parlez vous Francais?” he tries. The two continue to stare. “Parlare Italiano?” No response. “¿Hablan ustedes Español?” Still nothing. The Swiss guy drives off, extremely disgusted. The first American turns to the second and says, “Y’know, maybe we should learn a foreign language.” “Why,” says the other, “That guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”
The butt end of a Joke
I’m writing this in rural Mali, where I’ve been working and traveling the past two weeks. I tried making my way up to Timbuktu after the work was finished, but there’s a bunch of mercenaries who’ve been run out of Libya up there with guns and money. I’ve been advised not to go with the reasoning being that a) they were on the wrong side of an American supported revolution and I’m American, and b) when the money runs out, they may start looking for new sources – i.e. kidnapping foreigners like me. (see update note #1)
Still, I’ve been able to see some amazing places (Dogon Country, Djenne, etc.) and to meet great people. But, I am acutely aware of being a foreigner here. Not only because there aren’t many white people here at the moment, but also because I don’t speak any of the main locally-spoken languages, including the colonial one: French. I speak just enough of this to greet people and then tell them in French that I don’t actually speak it. They think this is pretty funny. If they happen to speak a bit of English, I tell them this joke:
- What do you call someone who can speak three languages?
- They say, “I don’t know”
- A trilinguist.
(If they don’t speak English very well, we stumble around this for a few minutes until they understand what I’m saying and then, after a while, realize that it’s not the punch line and swallow their fake nervous laugh.)
- What do you call someone who can speak two languages?
- They get this one right: “a bilinguist?”
- Yes, and what do you call someone who can speak just one language?
- “…um, I don’t know.”
- An American!
Pause…wait for it…riotous laughter! Backslapping, broken ice, best friends, and free beer! A good joke can go a long way, especially when you’re essentially the butt of it.
My travel schedule for work this year has put me into over a dozen countries on six continents. If it weren’t for the amazing English language skills of local people, my work would pretty much be dead in the water in most of these places. My multilingual colleagues and translators allow me to utilize my skills in places where I would otherwise be unable to ask for a glass of water or place to poop.
Whereas in many places in the world, children grow up speaking 2-3 languages out of the starting blocks, I didn’t begin to learn a second language until high school. I learned German – und Ich habe fast alles vergessen – which came in handy as an exchange student, but for lack of use has all but disappeared from my linguistic tool box. I took up Spanish as an undergraduate, which proved more useful when courting my Bolivian girlfriend (now wife), although there were plenty of mistakes along the way, like forgetting that “to like” is a reflexive verb. The first time I tried to express how I was feeling, I ended up announcing to her great annoyance, “you like me, you like me a lot“.
I’m fluent now, which is nice because I can communicate directly with an additional 400 million people on this planet. “¿Me podrías dar un vaso de agua por favor? y ¿Donde esta el baño?” See, pretty damn useful.
When the butt makes an effort
I’m doing my best to learn French now. Actually, that’ a lie. I put a copy of Rosetta Stone French on my computer, so my pocket book is doing its best, but I’ve been too busy or lazy to really prioritize it, which has positioned me well to both entertain and offend when working in places like West Africa.
We expats and world travelers all have lots of really funny anecdotes of our language faux pas – being asked if married and replying “a little bit, but I should be better by morning” (confusing casado – married with cansado – tired), announcing we’re quite pregnant following last night’s drinking binge (confusing embarrasado – pregnant for vergonzado – embarrassed). These things happen. It’s dreadfully embarrassing in the best sort of way; it leaves you more humble but without lasting emotional scars – so long as you can laugh at yourself.
But, given the fact that most of us English speakers can find good translators in the countries we visit or live in for work, and given that it does kind of suck to announce your a pregnant man recovering from marriage when you’re trying to come off as a seasoned humanitarian professional, why should we even bother. After all, “that guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”
Because language is a bit like food. People just love it when you make an effort to eat their food. I was in some remote village once in the middle of …where was that…Uganda? Chad? Any way, I was talking with some community volunteers who were recalling the last time they had an American visit their village from World Vision. “Hey, do you know so-n-so?” they asked me, a bit naïve to the size of my organization. But, in fact I did know this person. “He’s such a great guy!” they exuded. “Why do you say that?” I asked, curious. “He ate everything we gave him,” one exclaimed. And the rest all nodded vigorously and happily at this. “Do you know who this man was?” I asked, pressing the point a bit. They recalled that he was an American and from World Vision and again applauded his culinary enthusiasm. What they didn’t recall about this person was that he was the International President of World Vision.
What left a lasting impression on these folks was not the man’s position, but his willingness to lift his fork and dive into their culture. He embraced part of what defined them without hesitation or judgment. He received from them without turning up his nose at what they had to offer.
I’ve got a rule when I travel – I eat or drink whatever is given to me by the communities I visit. I know that sometimes this will make me sick, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. (I’ll spare you the details of my 12 hour bus ride yesterday from Djenne to Bamako.) There is no faster way to connect with people and build a small platform of trust than to share a meal – their meal – together. I have yet to break my rule in hundreds of towns and villages in over 30 countries – and I’ve put things in my mouth that would make Andrew Zimmern proud. Now granted, nobody offered me Balut last month when I was in SE Asia – a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell – that may have pushed the limits of my commitment to this rule.
Language is a bit like this. A willingness to learn and use even a few words demonstrates a willingness to be vulnerable and to make an effort to accept and use what is local. It recognizes that you are the visitor and honors your host.*
I once had to deliver the results of a month-long audit to a group of several hundred local workers in an East African NGO office. For reasons I can’t share, the future of this office was being staked on these results. The tension that had been building over the course of the month had reached an unbearable limit. The moment had come to find out whether they’d all be out of job or not. I rose from my chair and delivered a paragraph’s worth of good news in Swahili.
I had spent about 30 minutes practicing saying it with my translator so that it would sound just right. It just seemed proper for me to deliver such a verdict in their language, rather than mine. Several came up to me afterwards and confirmed that it had been a meaningful gesture.
Now, I know that I can’t learn much more than a handful of words in the local language in most places I go, and usually these are the ones that people take pleasure in teaching me – I can say at least one dirty word in over a dozen languages. It may take me another few years to speak French with any confidence, and I recognize that this will be my third colonial language, which allows one to communicate with a large portion of the World, but for most communities it’s still not really their language. Even so, I will continue to make an effort to embrace that which is local, be it food or language, if only to remind myself that I am the guest, that my language and food and culture are just ones among thousands of similar inherent value.
Update Note #1.
Since writing this, some friends that I made in Mali were in fact kidnapped in Timbuktu. I had been invited to join them, but explained that I had gotten some clear warnings from the WV Mali security team in Bamako. They decided to push ahead anyway, which is a totally valid decision – I probably would have joined them as well, but I actually had more fear of my wife finding out I had gone despite such clear warnings than I had of actually getting kidnapped. I stayed up to about 1:30 one morning with one of them, whose name I cannot share for the sake of his safety. He is described in the second article linked below – it is his wife who is now devastated. We talked about his life, his family, and plans for the future. I gave him a book I had finished reading. He and the others are good folks who took a risk to see the world and meet new people. They ended up being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Please keep them and their families in your prayers.