I will be the first to admit that I am horrible at learning languages. I am sure there are many people (language teachers, locals who I am trying to communicate with, classmates) who would like to affirm this admission but I will give it to Joel who has had to sit through more language classes with me than anyone else.
Now, my excuse – some people just aren’t born with language learning ability! And I just read in a magazine that after we turn 13 the synapses in our brain’s language learning center become more rigid, therefore hindering our learning language ability. It was National Geographic, Oct 2011.
I’ve tried to learn a number of different languages in my adult life. In the classroom – French (ok, I started this when I was 10. But I was a very mature 10 year-old.) and German (in university, after being told while travelling in Germany that the few words I sounded out while reading signs sounded “very natural”). Through immersion – Kiswahili, Korean, and now Dinka. At this point in my life all vocabulary for all the languages get quite confused. It is not uncommon for me to use Korean and Swahili before I finally get to the Dinka word.
Ok, I did take a two month Dinka course last year. And after the course I could maintain a conversation slightly beyond greetings. But the thing is, I don’t really like learning languages. I like learning about the culture surrounding languages and how these things are connected but please don’t ask me to recite vocabulary lists.
This all brings me to Romic, South Sudan approximately two years after my arrival in Dinkaland. I was visiting for the very first time and leading a workshop on trauma and peacebuilding. I use translators so it generally goes smoothly. During breaks I usually greet people (which I am actually not bad at), stand in a crowd of people entertaining them with my silly antics and/or go hide in a corner somewhere. On this day our break consisted of a meal. Since I was the facilitator I was given a special room in which to eat my food, and since there was only one woman attending the workshop she was told to go eat with me (the other women of the church were preparing to greet the governor who was also visiting Romic). She said she was scared.
It soon became obvious that I knew more Dinka than she knew English. So, if we weren’t going to sit awkwardly at a table together in silence I would have to be the one to engage. I will now transcribe our conversation – to show you that I am not being humble about my language ability but brutally honest.
Note: We had already greeted each other many times. As I said, greetings are my forte.
Me: Your children? One? Two?
Her: Six (using her fingers to help me)
Me – I indicate child size with my hand in an attempt to ask her if her children are young or old.
Her – Indicates child size as well saying something I don’t understand.
Me – nodding
Her – How many children do you have? (although to be honest I really only understand the words your children).
Me – My children?None. Not yet. (I have found the “not yet” is an important addition because otherwise people will have many more questions for me that I don’t really understand and know I can’t answer).
Her – No response to this shocking news.
Me – Your children? Go school?
Her – Yes
Me – Where? Here?
Her – yes (at this point she wrongly assumes that I have more Dinka words in my Dinka bank that I haven’t withdrawn yet. She launches into a long sentence. I think I understand the words my husband. By her tone and action I believe she is telling me her husband has died.
Me – nods sympathetically.
Her – Keeps talking. This time I think she is telling me two of her children have died.
Me – Sorry
Her – looks confused. I clearly have not interpreted correctly.
Me – (feeling I should somehow save this conversation.) You sister of Priest?
Her – yes. (She again indicates size with her hand showing that he is oldest and she is the youngest. It helps that I already know this information.)
Me – (Now my Dinka is pretty much exhausted. I am done eating and now we are just staring at each other. I look around and see her purse and point.) You? This?
Her – smiles, takes it, takes out a one pound note and gives the purse to me saying … something…
Me – smile, nod, and put it back where it was placed before, thinking that I probably don’t look very trustworthy.
Her – repeats one word over and over that I don’t understand.
Me – (smile and nod, smile and nod. I remember I have a magazine in my bag and one more word at my disposal. I proclaim loudly) Picture! (I give her the magazine.)
Her – Your picture?
Me – no (note: there aren’t really words for yes and no. So I make disagreeing noises).
Her – (as she pages through she sees a picture of an older white man). Your father?
Me – no
Her – seems to not like my response which means she was perhaps asking something different or she doesn’t know why I am showing her pictures of strangers.
At this point the priest comes into the room for his meal. His sister leaves and I am able to do some fact checking with him.
First, I ask him about the word that she has repeated over and over. (Which I am beginning to think means I should take/have the purse – since she repeated the word as she left, pointing to the purse on the table and to me.) The priest looks a bit horrified as I repeat the word and tells me it is a very bad word in Dinka. Hmmm…. I decide to give some context. Then the priest laughs at how Dinka words can be so similar but so different and tells me, yes, his sister meant to give me the purse because I am a new guest.
An excuse: No stranger has ever given me anything here. That is why I don’t know the word.
Second, her husband has in fact died. Although it was a long time ago in the war. Perhaps she was asking me if my husband was ok with me not having children.
Third, she actually has 7 children. And, apparently asking how many children a person has is a faux pas (like how I pulled out that French just now?). What?! That is my standard “conversation” starter. As I learned, in Dinka culture people don’t like to talk about how many children they have for fear that God will think they are boasting and take a child away.
So there you go. Interested in culture. Horrible language skills.
Suzanne and I.
Then I became a portrait photographer:
And one more: