Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Alphabet Soup

That is, perhaps, the best way to describe my brain right now. It is swimming with languages, and when I open my mouth, who knows what will come out.

I decided to come to Burundi for multiple reasons. The first—and most important—was that the job offer was the most challenging. The second was that I would be able to use my French full-time (Burundi is still Francophone, although it is moving toward English due to its recent membership in the East African Community), and continue to improve my Kinyarwanda. I had been told that Kirundi, the local language of Burundi, was very similar to Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), and was curious to see how true that was.

As it turns out, they are very similar. With a couple of exceptions, the languages are almost the same, and Burundians always tell me that they understand Rwandans easily, the same way that Americans and Britons understand each other. I have only had problems with one word: beans. I ordered them in Kinyarwanda once, and was brought peas, which were still delicious, but weren’t exactly what I ordered. Another time, I tried it again, and the young boy taking my order looked at me like I had six heads. I switched to French. “Eh,” he acknowledged, and sure enough, I received my beans. (Note: In Kinyarwanda, it’s ibishyimbo. In Kirundi, it’s ibiharage.)

I’m also taking advantage of the opportunity to learn Swahili, and have hired a private Swahili tutor for about $6 an hour. Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, is fairly easy to learn. Its grammar is (mostly) logical, and many of its words are derived from Arabic (the language was born on the island of Zanzibar, which for years was an Omani sultanate) and English. I often laugh when my teacher teaches me new words—such as kampyuta (computer), shati (shirt), wiki (week), and the months of the year (which basically look like pidgin English, from Januari to Decemba).

I have been insistent with my tutor, telling him that I want to learn Tanzanian Swahili, which is the purest form. Kenyan and Congolese Swahili is different, and Tanzanians look down on these dialects as muddied. My tutor is very good about this, but since he is Congolese, I do catch him teaching me what he calls “Bantu Swahili” from time to time. And he, in turn, catches me mixing Kirundi and Kinyarwanda with Swahili during our lessons.

There is certainly a heavier Tanzanian influence here than in Rwanda, and as a result, Swahili is known as the language of the street. The director of my office once sniffed that Swahili wasn’t spoken in our office—only Kirundi or French, pure and simple. Of course, knowing the “language of the street” is very helpful when you are trying to tell a taxi driver who does not understand any French or English where you want to go, or when you are making conversation with the women who lay out their smelts to dry in the sun near my office.

The result has been that I have begun to speak in Kirundi and Swahili at the same time, dropping in words from both languages, with an occasional French word as well. Luckily for me, that’s how people speak here.

And what of my English? Any English speaker here will acknowledge the inevitability of “Franglais.” Our brains are so mixed up that most of my conversations with expats are bilingual. I do fear that some of my English is slipping—I recall my junior year of college, when I was studying abroad in the south of France. I had only spoken in French, so when I was being interviewed over the phone for a possible internship, I found it nearly impossible to put together a coherent sentence in English. When the interviewer asked me what my greatest weakness was, I knew that I had to come up with a strength disguised as a weakness. As I struggled to find the words in English, the silence on the phone grew deeper, and I ended up telling the woman that I am sometimes late to work. (Note to possible future employers: I am NEVER late to work. Er..) Needless to say, if there ever was a wrong answer, that was it, and I didn’t get the internship.

At the very least, my colleagues and friends understand me, and I’ve hopefully limited the faux pas. And while having this soup of languages in my head will probably make writing term papers in the fall an even more laborious process, I’m quite satisfied that I am able to communicate with Burundians here in the meantime.


Anonymous Brian Barker said...

Hi Morgan

I agree with your tower of Babel comment but I think in today's World the language problem is still relevant!

If you have time, please check http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670
as well as the Esperanto website at http://www.lernu.net

8/06/2009 1:29 PM  

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