Sunday, October 18, 2009


This week was relatively uneventful. School began as usual on Monday and kind of petered out, so that by the end of the week, only a handful of students were showing up. This is because the latter part of the week was designated as “review for exams,” which most of the teachers and students interpreted as “don't bother to show up to review for exams.”

Since I don't have much to say about school this week, I'm going to write about something I've been meaning to touch on for awhile: the language here.

. . . Ack. I have to pause for a minute. One of the mothers next door is shrieking and beating one of her kids and he is yelling and crying, and it's very distracting.

OK, they stopped. God, it's so unpleasant to hear that. I know that I wrote a little bit about the domestic violence situation here, but it's something I'm going to have to revisit at some point. Not today, though.

Anyway, the language.

The language situation here is really interesting. As in Kenya, there are many different local dialects (the region I am in is dominated by the Krahn – or maybe Khran? -- people, who have their own language), but this place differs from Kenya in that the majority of people usually speak English. However, it's a version of English that's so different from American English that I often can't even tell whether people are speaking English or the local dialect. In Kenya, that was not true – while many people spoke only dialect or dialect and some Swahili, those that did speak English generally spoke a very British English with an accent that was not too difficult to understand.

Here, the difficulty in comprehension is not just a matter of an accent, although many people have a very heavy accent (by my Northeastern American standards, obviously; “accent” is a completely relative term). There are significant differences in word choice and order that make it hard to understand as well. For example, people sometimes greet you by saying “How de body?” or simply “Fine?” And they often leave out connecting verbs or articles, use only present-tense verbs, and replace “I” with “me” or “he” with “him,” as when the kids proudly state “Me do maths today!” or demand “Give me football!” Then there are some things that are called by completely different, though still obviously English-origin, names. Asking for “avocado” in the market is useless; we've learned to ask for “butter pear,” or, to be more accurate, “buttah pay-ah.” “Papaya” is the British “pawpaw,” and mangoes are “golden plums.” “Colored pencils” or “crayons” are simply “colorings.”

In light of this, when I first came here, I felt even more lost in terms of language than I did in Kenya. Having a conversation with someone who is speaking the same language as you and being totally unable to mutually comprehend each other is a really bizarre experience. I felt as though I was living in a foreign language country, piecing together meaning from context and individual words picked out from the conversation. At the end of the day I even felt that kind of mental exhaustion that comes from sustained linguistic efforts, the same exhaustion I felt when I studied abroad as an undergrad in France.

On the other hand, overall, I understand a lot more than I did in Kenya. While the Swahili training we had there was interesting and allowed me to sometimes get the gist of what people were talking about as I eavesdropped on conversations, it was also totally useless at the village level, where people spoke almost exclusively Kipsigis (the dialect of the sub-tribe in my region, part of the larger, Nilotic-origin Kalenjin languages). So while I had no problems with language at my school, where everyone spoke English (to an extent – which brings me to an issue that I'll have to come back to another time, which is how requiring bi- or tri-lingualism from every student potentially interferes with the learning process), as soon as I left the school grounds my understanding of what was going on around me essentially dropped to zero.

It still surprises me to hear people speaking English in the community and to realize that they are not doing it for my benefit. It's also kind of funny to hear and understand people talking about but not to me as I go by, as when children excitedly shout to their friends “White woman passing!! White woman JOGGING!!!!” Furthermore, it's still surprising to me when I hear coarser language; I almost never heard people using English curse words in Kenya, and if they used local or Swahili ones, I didn't understand them. But here, a day doesn't go by when I don't hear someone throw out a “fuck” or a “shit,” often directed angrily at another person.

The extent to which even young kids use this kind of language still shocks me a little bit, though I suppose it shouldn't, knowing that child supervision is frequently relegated to other, often only slightly older, children. As an example: yesterday, I and a fellow volunteer were hanging out with the kids outside, and they started playing a totally safe and enjoyable game in which they attempted to poke each other in the butt with sticks (we're not talking about a gentle prodding, either; we're talking a full-out crack-directed stabbing). One child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, turned around at one point and yelled “Don't touch my asshole!” A few minutes earlier, an older child (around 12) had been playing with his younger brother (around 1 or 2) in a way that disturbed me. “What are you doing?!?” I asked him. He looked up with a big grin and said “Me suck his titty!” This, in fact, was an accurate description of what he had been doing.

Anyway, there is more that I want to write about language, particularly about the ways in which I and other volunteers modify our own speech patterns to be understood, and the mixed feelings I have about doing this. And I'll have to write more about the kids' rough play at some point as well. But, once again, I've written far too much for one entry, and will have to leave the rest for another day.

1 comment:

  1. I think that's totally awesome. If I could get any sort of souvenier from Africa, I'd have you just walk around and secretly record the locals speaking English. Something tells me the IRB wouldn't be too keen on that idea, and I wouldn't be able to use it for anything, but still. Language change in areas of language contact, particularly where multilingualism is prevelent, is really friggin neat.