Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Language lesson

A variety of hellos:

Hallo (Afrikaans)
Dumela (Sotho & Tswana)
Sawubona (Zulu)

Other words and phrases I have absorbed:

Ack praat nie Afrikaans nie = I don't speak Afrikaans (Afrikaans, what else? And I'm pretty sure that most of that is spelled wrong.)

Lerato = Love (Sotho, I think)
Tando = Love (Zulu)

On Sunday, a few of us visited a church called "Reverb" in Hatfield--it's sort of the university area of downtown Pretoria. I was looking forward specifically to worshipping with other believers--worship in song is one of the things I've been missing about PBC lately. However, this service ended up being a lot different. We were asked to head out to the surrounding area in pairs, find someone to talk with & hear their story. Each pair was given R50 (about $7) and the idea was for us to find someone in need and help them out in whatever way we could. I headed out with Sarah, admittedly a little reluctant to engage in the project. It was cool to see God change that reluctance as we engaged people in conversation.

We ended up walking around the flea market and stopped at a booth to talk with the vendors who were selling some handcrafts--carving, beadwork, etc. Sarah spotted some small square paintings and asked about them--sure enough, one of the two guys at the booth had painted them. Sarah's an artist herself, so that gave us a really cool entry point for conversation. We spent maybe half an hour chatting with these two guys. They were brothers who had come to South Africa from Kenya, looking for better opportunities economically--"greener pastures," as one of them put it. During our conversation, the more talkative of the brothers asked what languages we wanted to learn while we're here. I'm still trying to keep straight all the names of all the languages we've encountered! I asked him how many languages he speaks. Six. Six languages! Here I am with English, some very meagre Spanish, and a phrase or two in Italian. I'm not even going to count the small bit of language I shared above.

Soon after I arrived in SA, someone mentioned how it's ridiculous that white people here often think black people aren't intelligent...when most black people here speak at least three or four languages. Capability in six languages, in America, would be considered pretty amazing. I was thinking about this last night, how such facility with languages isn't valued here like it is in a lot of other cultures. And then I wondered if perhaps it's just that facility with black languages isn't valued.

I'm still thinking about all of this and wondering what these observations will mean for my time here. I know the amount of language I can absorb while I'm here will be very small. At the same time, I want to try to learn at least enough to be able to greet people in their own languages--and not just assume everyone speaks some English (though that's usually the case). I don't want to conform to the "stupid American" stereotype...the tourist who expects everyone to speak his own language. =) I think that for me, part of engaging the culture here--something I can do to outwardly demonstrate that the culture I'm living in is important to learn about--will be an attempt to learn and use what language I can. (This will perhaps also help me in remembering African names...something I'm finding to be more difficult than I'd anticipated!) Stay tuned for my continued language efforts. =)


Kristy said...

This is a topic I think about a lot - how so many people in other countries speak at least two languages, while most Americans only speak English, and most of us butcher our own language, as well. I don't think it's an American prejudice against black languages, it's just an American stubborness in expecting the rest of the world to speak our language.

Also, I think our educational system is really screwed up in this area, as we don't require any foreign language classes (usually) until high school, when kids are long past the age of easy language absorbtion. I think that the learning of foreign languages should begin in kindergarten or first grade and continue through high school, giving kids a chance to be fluent in at least one language besides their own. Hopefully we can get Judah started early with a tutor to learn some other languages. I wish I knew some besides English....

Barbara said...

Oh, I don't think it's an American prejudice against black languages, either--I think it can be (or has been) a common white South African prejudice, though.

You should get Judah a non-English-speaking au pair. ;-)