Tuesday, August 5, 2014
“If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American.” ― Mark Twain
The quote above is really anonymous, but I thought it sounded like something Mark Twain might have said. It’s not original with me, but there is more than a bit of truth to it. Most missionaries, especially those sponsored by churches, denominations, or large organizations go to an immersion language school for three to six months before they begin their mission work. Karen and I were and are volunteers—no one is funding us directly, so we could hardly afford the $6,000 cost of language school. We did find a retired high school English teacher who was willing to come to our house three times a week for a couple of hours for $30 a month to try to teach us. We also had a computer program called Rosetta Stone which was pretty good. However, these were nothing like an immersion program at a language school, so our Swahili is no where near as good as the other missionaries around here. This has led to many, many miscommunications, some funny, some frustrating, and some that cost us a bit of money. I tell people here that “Kiswahili changu ni darasa la kwanza tu.” This means that I only speak Swahili on the level of a first grader. Most immediately laugh and tell me that this isn’t true, that I am at least on the third grade level. John picked it up much faster than I and knows more about the connections and adverbs than I do. I have a much larger vocabulary such that between the two of us, we can do pretty well. Still, there have been some major mistakes, and this is an oral culture, so the really good gaffes are still being talked about some ten years later. When I was first learning, I was proud of my “little learning” (see quote from the blog a few days ago) and was in a restaurant in Arusha ordering my lunch. I ordered “chupi ya maji baridi” which I thought meant a bottle of cold water. Well, bottle is “chupa” ending with an “a” and “chupi” ending with an “i” is the word for mens underwear. Thus, with a loud voice in a crowded restaurant, I ordered some cold, wet mens underwear—which was followed by laughter from just about everyone. They are still talking about that in Arusha. We had a visitor here once who said something that the waiters still remember at the Serengeti Stop Over. The word for tea here (and almost everywhere else in the world) is “chai.” When I hear someone in America order chai tea, I laugh because they ordered “tea tea.” Anyway, the word for bathroom here is “choo” which is similar. We were at lunch and the waiter asked our visitor if she wanted a soda, and she replied, “Oh no. I have just had a big cup of choo.” The waiter didn’t laugh, his jaw dropped and he just stared. I, of course, as the good host, just howled with laughter. I think I laughed so hard because I was still known as the guy who orders wet underwear at restaurants. Still, the people here don’t really care how badly you butcher their language, they are so proud that you are trying that they will encourage you and assist you. If you only know a few words of greeting, they will smile and welcome you as one of their own. When we were in Dar Es Salaam, Karen was speaking Swahili to the women in the beauty salon, and they were so impressed they went and got friends and brought them in to see the white lady who spoke Swahili. An awful lot of visitors here never learn a single word. It is sad when just one or two words make so much difference. It’s about respect and acknowledging that the people here are every bit as good as we are. I still make mistakes, but I have not stopped trying. Once when I was preaching, I was telling the story of the men who lowered their friend through the roof so Jesus could heal him, except the way I told it in Swahili, I had the friends throwing the man through the roof. Didn’t matter, the point was the same. If you want to show that you respect the people with whom you live, learn a few words in their language. By so doing, you elevate them and show them the Christ that lives within you.