Living in a place where the commonly used language is not your mother tongue is a true learning experience. It’s’ a learning experience in that it gives you the opportunity to acquire a skill (speaking another language) that you previously didn’t have. But it’s also a very visceral experience of coming to understand what others go through when they face a similar experience. For about 13 of the past 20 years this has been our reality. Living this way you start to appreciate what it is like to not be able to communicate as efficiently or effectively as you would like.
I was sitting somewhere and someone was struggling to make clear what they wanted to say. I found that I was – at some subconscious level – passing some kind of judgment on their ability/knowledge on what was being discussed. I very quickly realized that they must feel the same way I do when trying to make myself understood in French. I can get by OK speaking French in France, but in rural Burundi the accent and local grammar rules for that version of French mean I still get stared at a lot, and let’s be honest, I can do very little in Kirundi. It is a very frustrating feeling to have thoughts that you have formed, that you want to communicate to others – but there is an awkward transformation of my ideas into the too-limited number of words that I have at my disposal. It feels like trying to pour clear water through an unreasonably messy filter that allows only partial thoughts through, often with sludgy grammar, and unwanted extra bits, while all too often the clarity of what I had started with seems partially or completely lost. I want my mind to be more like a working filter, allowing (reasonably) clear and intelligible phrases to pass through. But when it feels like your words are betraying you, you have suddenly lost one of the most fundamental human abilities – the ability to speak and listen clearly, articulately, accurately.
When kids start speaking it opens up a whole new world for them, and everyone around them. Suddenly you can start to have these transfers of information, conversations, where you can understand (a tiny bit of) what’s going on inside their head. It is such a significant marker in the development of a child that we celebrate it. “Our baby said their first word today!!!” is exciting not just because it’s a sign of growth and development, but because it’s a marker that from that time forward your ability to communicate with each other has increased exponentially.
I remember one time when we lived in France and we took a trip to London. Sitting on the tube, surrounded by dozens of people, many having conversations in pairs or groups around us I felt like I was unintentionally eavesdropping on many of them. I could effortlessly overhear what they were saying, picking up on conversations without any intention. I felt like I was in a movie where I could suddenly read people’s thoughts, and they didn’t know it. It felt like I should turn to the camera and say: “These people have no idea I can totally hear and understand them!”
When someone is speaking in Kirundi, I struggle to grasp the general direction of the conversation. If I have context, then I can usually pick up a few words here and there, and if I’m lucky get a very general sense of what’s going on – assuming it’s a simple conversation with limited vocabulary. I can ask people how they are doing, where they live, how many kids they have. If we see someone we know at the hospital i can ask if their child is sick, if they’ve seen the doctor, if they’re going home today. My speaking and understanding really are capable of about that level of communication. It’s frustrating. And it very often makes me feel dumb.
There aren’t many people who live up in our village who speak French other than those who went to university (the doctors and nurses) and moved up there for work. But every once and a while I meet someone who is from that hill, and went through that school system, and speaks French, on top or Kirundi, and decent English as well. Someone whose educational opportunities were worlds away from what I had, and they can get by in three languages. I’m the educated, privileged foreigner from a rich country with ‘world-class education’, and I’m bumbling along, trying to ask a simple question.
This has definitely caused me to at least be more aware of when I start to prejudice the quality of someone’s ideas, or their contribution because they lack the one simple skill of speaking articulately in the language we’re using. You’d think that being on the outsider end of this situation for most of the past two decades would have long removed it completely from my psyche. But alas, those prejudices apparently lie deep in my core.
So I guess it’s just a reminder to watch and correct that misguided judgment that’s so easy to fall into. The ability to speak in the language, accent and accepted vocabulary of a certain group is not really an indicator of anything other than a familiarity with the group. ‘Speaking without an accent” in any part of the world usually just means we’re either from there or have spent a lot of time there. We have to watch for our underlying urge to sometimes attach any other meaning to it.
That, and please remember to Pardon Our French.