I’m supposed to be good at languages. After all, I ran a French-speaking OXFAM office in Senegal for five years and then earned a living teaching German for fifteen more.
What is, perhaps, less well known, (mainly because I have tried my best to keep it a secret), is the impressive list of languages that I have utterly failed to master.
It started with Arabic, when I first did VSO in The Sudan some 40 years ago. I knew enough to say “Salaam wa Alaikum. Ana ismi Robert”, to find my way around Khartoum and to buy tomatoes, but not much else.
Then came Swahili, when I got the job of Deputy Field Director for OXFAM in Kenya. My excuse for not being very good with Swahili was that whenever I travelled around Kenya visiting projects, they were never in the areas where Swahili was spoken. Well, that was my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
From Kenya we moved to Senegal, where I never even got started with Wolof, apart from ‘Nagadef’ (How are you?), to which the answer is ‘Mangafi’ (I’m fine.) My excuse this time? I was far too busy working on improving my schoolboy French so that I could actually answer the telephone in French and make myself understood, to worry about learning another language.
Ah, then came Chinese. Well, that was never a realistic proposition. Following a trip to China to visit No. 1 Daughter, I was responsible for introducing the language into my last school and organized the placement of three separate Chinese Assistants to come over and give students an introduction to Chinese Language and Culture. I did try to learn a few bits of Chinese, mainly just for showing-off purposes, but none of it would really stick in my brain, so I finally had to conclude that I was far too busy to sit in the classes and get my head around four tones and a fiendishly difficult script.
Spanish? Well, again, I did try. Honest! I starting trying to learn it because I had agreed to take a group of students on a World Challenge expedition to Peru and not one of them was learning Spanish in school. Indeed, most of them were my finest German A-level students, so no use at all for ordering coffee in Cusco.
For months I would get into my car at 7.20 every morning and drive the 20 miles from Northampton to Corby listening to the droning, monotone voice of Michel Thomas, (language Tutor to the Stars), taking me through the basics of Spanish, over and over and over again. “Como te llamas? Quantos anos tienes? Mi llamo Robert. Tengo treini anos. Donde estan los servicios? Como te llamas? Quantos anos tienes? Mi llamo Robert. Tengo treini anos. Donde estan los servicios?” (OK, so I lied about my age. Don’t you?)
Oh yes, and I nearly forgot Dinka, which is a bit like Chinese for tall people. In fact, I didn’t nearly forget Dinka, I have, in fact, totally forgotten Dinka. I’ve always maintained that there is no such thing as a difficult language – it just depends how much time you can spend learning it. With Dinka, I make an exception. It was just an impossible language. Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Too many shifting vowel sounds for my liking.
And now we are in Papua New Guinea and last week we had two days of training in Tok Pisin, (literally ‘talk pidgin.’)
Tok Pisin is a wonderful language. It is based on English, but, over the years, has taken on a character of its own to the extent that when you first hear it, you think it is a completely different language. When you listen carefully, however, you start being able to work out, roughly, what is going on.
Observe the following conversation. A teacher meets a student, asks after her health, asks where she is going and says goodbye.
Tisa: Gutpla moning. Yu orait?
Sumatim: Mi orait.
Tisa: Yu go we?
Sumatim: Mi go maket. Mi go baim kukamba na planti tomato
Tisa: OK. Lukim yu.
Sumatim: Lukim yu, tisa.
How cool is that? The last bit reminds me of the famous Humphrey Bogart parting line to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” If they ever dub Casablanca into Pidgin, the line would have to be, “Lukim yu, pikinini.” I can’t wait!
And in what other language would you get to say a sentence like “Mi hamamas long bungim yu?” “hamamas’ means ‘happy’ and ‘bungim’ means “to meet.’ And all you do is change the words to suit the situation. So, “Mi hamamas long lukim yu.” “I am happy to see you.’
And, as always, Dear Reader, “Mi hamamas long raitim yu blog.”