8 May 2021
Oddly enough, it was a Spanish language PBS film, watched in Africa, that reconnected me to my failure to achieve a long held desire. Since I first lived in a country other than the USA, 48 years ago, I’ve wanted to be fluent in another language.
Mind you, saying “I’ve wanted to be …” is kind of like saying “I’d like to be an author” and it pretty much bypasses the work required to get there. In all honesty, I haven’t applied the effort I’ve felt was necessary to achieve this desire. Ever. Disappointingly, when I came to admit that to myself just before coming to Africa after having lived, worked, or traveled in 45 other countries, lack of effort has only been one of the more minor problems, here.
I was able to get along on a day to day basis in German when I was living in Germany. I had all of the incentives and positive reinforcement needed. I recall very clearly going into a jewelry store in Bitburg, Germany, and haltingly managing to communicate with the owner in German as I shopped for some kind of jewelry. I did all of the right things, plowing ahead even though I knew I was butchering the syntax and grammar. I needed to make mistakes to learn, and I made plenty.
For some reason, early on in life, I learned that being embarrassed about not knowing is simply not productive and creates a lot more social interaction problems than it seems to solve, and actually serves no purpose. So I struggled, waved my hands a lot, laughed at myself and got frustrated with myself, and managed to often get the extremely helpful shop owner to offer the correct German word for what I was trying to say and could only allude to. I tried, I did try, and walked out feeling like I had not done well but had learned something, and felt good about at least trying.
Then – the memorable thing happened that has lived with me the rest of my life – about 45 years of it since then. As I left the store, I waved with a smile on my face and said “Auf Wiedersehen.” The shop owner smiled, waved back, and said in perfect, accent -free American English “Good bye, my friend. And thank you for working to learn our language.”
What an amazing gift, to just work with me and give me the space to screw up over and over and over, without being condescending or impatient. Sometime when I am trying to communicate with someone and I am having a hard time understanding them, or they are struggling to understand me, I remember that store owner and try to live up to the model he embodied.
Here in Africa, I’ve had many, many chances to relive that lesson. Namibia’s official language is English. But the language makeup of the country is quite varied and complex. Just for fun, I’m going to give you some of the WAY too simplistic explanations for the language landscape in my adopted home.
The official national language of Namibia is English because if any one of the native languages was chosen it would cause internal problems with the others saying “why not me?”, plus English gave Namibia an advantage in international affairs which is an advantage of significance and is especially important for a new country trying to make their way in the big, bad world at large. But it is MUCH more complicated than that. If you are interested see the scholarly paper “A Critical Analysis of Namibia’s English-Only Language Policy” (https://www.lingref.com › cpp › acal › paper2574)
So here I am, a native English speaker, in a country that has one of the most complex language landscapes in the world. Here’s what I mean:
- About 50% of the small Namibian population of roughly 2.4 million is Owambo. Other ethnic groups include Kavango (9.3%), Damara (7.5%), Herero (7.5%), white (6.4%), Nama (4.8%) Caprivian (3.7%), San (2.9%), and Basters (2.5%).
- Oshiwambo (the language spoken by the Owambo people ) has seven major dialects, only two of which have a written form. But anyone that speaks an Oshiwambo language can pretty much get along in any of the other dialects – but it’s not as straightforward as it might seem (of course).
- Expand that basic principle of distinctly different dialects within a language group, and the most commonly quoted number of different languages within Namibia is roughly 30, the least I’ve seen being 13, and the most being almost 40 – depending on how you count a language as being different “enough”.
- Now recall that the population is only about 2.4 million, with 30 different languages.
When I first arrived in 2015 as a Peace Corps Volunteer I felt deficient and uncomfortable with my inability to understand sometimes. PLUS, the American Accent is rare here, and is difficult for many Namibians to understand. (Of course the tendency to TALK LOUDER IF THE ACCENT IS DIFFICULT is prevalent! And amusing.) Only after being here in Namibia for a while did I come to understand that even the Namibian people have trouble understanding each other! I didn’t feel quite so bad, then.
My first two months in the country, during “Pre Service Training”, I was given instruction in Afrikaans. I was not a star pupil but managed too do well enough on the post-training language test to “graduate”. My examiner (Patrick – a Peace Corps Namibia employee who has become a friend) was dutifully asking me to explain (in Afrikaans) some useful conversational topics such as explaining what color my pants were, how to get to the post office, and how to tell a taxi driver to slow down. Pretty rudimentary. Then he asked me to explain what it was like to fly a fighter airplane! OMG! In the years since, we have chuckled over that one many times.
At my first posting I was working with 32 disadvantaged women in a single village from a number of different ethnic groups. I tried speaking Afrikaans, but only two of them spoke Afrikaans, and they didn’t want to! Afrikaans is unpopular in some areas of Namibia due to it being the language of Apartheid. Lots of trauma and associations there.
So – I took advantage of the Peace Corps policy of reimbursing language training and hired one of the local women to help me learn Oshiwambo – specifically the Oukwanyama dialect. I launched into it enthusiastically and would ask various women during the day things in Oshiwambo hoping to continue to learn more. But for some reason I was having real trouble with it. I would get the pronunciation of a word down, then say it to someone else and they would look baffled, and uncomprehending, and tell me “no, no – that word should be <whatever>”. I would then lose confidence. Only later was I told that they (in a “fun” way – not maliciously) were messing with me and having a ball doing it! If I said it properly in the Oukwanyama dialect, the Ondonga dialect speakers would claim not to understand and clarify how it should be said. And vice-versa. Of course I didn’t understand it was six of one, half a dozen of the other to them. I’ve come to understand it was a sign that they liked me and had a ball messing with the American! A good bonding and social integration activity, but useless for learning a language.
All of that contributed to our fun, but detracted from my ability to learn the damn language! Rats.
So two years later I move to Oranjemund where the predominant language is Afrikaans (of course – two years after my Afrikaans lessons with no practice) but almost everyone speaks English. I have made lots of friends here, and the Afrikaaners want me to learn more Afrikaans, my Owambo friends want me to learn Owambo, my closest friend is Ovaherero, my domestic who has become literally a friend is Damara, and speaks Nama, and I still haven’t learned to deal gracefully with the “clicks” that are part of the !Kung/KhoeKhoe (or whatever) languages that the US viewer became familiar with in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” Those clicks are no big deal here – just a part of the language. But my tongue rebels. If you want a good example of daily use of the click language(s), watch the short, interesting, video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CblldKTrLM, plus you will have the added benefit of knowing how to trap a porcupine, in case the opportunity arises!
PLUS – everyone (almost) speaks English. So … I haven’t yet learned to fluently speak another language. Doesn’t look good for the future at this stage. Sigh…
And for those who want to give me a different excuse, no – it isn’t because I’m old. Really.
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