Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Language Barrier

I’m in Gaoua now, right in the heart of Lobi country and within spitting distance of the borders of both Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana. It’s essential here to secure the services of a guide to explain the esoteric customs and traditions of the Lobi people in the surrounding villages. Trouble is that there are no English speaking guides here and so I‘m compelled to go with a French speaking guide and hope that I can make some sense of what I‘m being told. Oral communication, when you think about it, is as much about interpreting signs and understanding gestures as it is the physical act of talking and listening. Imagine for a moment that you’re speaking to a person from a different country and they’re using a language you don’t understand. Well, what you do understand is that language is about taking turns, giving and taking and, ultimately, understanding. So if you listen to someone from another country speak and they stop speaking then you’ll know it’s likely that either;
(a) they’ve just told you something and, probably,
(b) they’re waiting for you to respond in some way.
But today as my guide spoke I realised how, even with the most embarrassingly poor French vocabulary after two months spent in French speaking countries, most words that we use are window dressing i.e. I could understand almost completely what he was saying by throwing a mental lasso around the few words I did understand and use some common sense to figure out from his gestures and intonation what it was he was speaking about. It was an experience akin to watching a Latin American soap opera. Or Fair City. You don’t understand the language but you can figure things out pretty well.
Now when it comes to speaking the language, that’s an entirely different matter. No doubt my comprehension of the language has improved in the past two months but I’m still stuck in first gear when it comes to developing a conversation and it’s frustrating for all parties. I’ve generally avoided conversations with the natives because once my limited reserves of pidgin French have been used, I’m marooned. To compensate for my vocabulary deficit I’ve discovered a new technique which is completely useless but helps me feel a little more eloquent. When I don’t know the French for a word I simply use the English word, dress it up in a haughty French accent and continue unperturbed as if nothing unusual has happened. I’ll even attach an ‘un’ or ‘une’ to each word I’ve made up just to make it seem more authentic to me and make it sound even more casual. Perfect and it‘ll work well in South America too, simply by replacing ‘le‘ with ‘el‘. Useless for comprehension of course but it gives me the impression that I’m conversing like a native speaker. In turn it gives the native speaker the impression that they’re conversing with the village idiot. Take these two sentences by way of example;
“Pardon, il-y-a un stat-eee-on de petreule ici?”
“Merci beaucuop pour votre hos-pee-tal-ee-tay.”
I know it's stupid, the person who hears it definitely knows it's stupid but everyone's too polite to say that they've noticed anything.
When I’m listening to someone speak, rather than give the impression that I don’t understand them, I’ve learned how to buy time in any conversation. I've decided that I'm better off lying than stopping a conversation every two minutes saying that I don't understand. Whoever said that honesty is the best policy spoke French fluently. It might be a small word but ‘oui’ has become my best friend, the glue that holds my conversations together. There are many different ways of using ‘oui’ to prolong a conversation. To begin with you need to put several ‘ouis’ together - ’Ah, oui, oui, oui, oui, oui’ usually works well - and from there it all depends on your tone of voice. There are the profound ‘ouis’ uttered with a straight face and a nodding head when you think you’ve been told something of great historical relevance or of philosophical importance, the knowing ‘ouis’ said almost in a giggle when the speaker ends his sentence with a smile or the quick fire ‘ouis’ scattered throughout somebody’s sentence which, though you’re completely lost, the aim is that if you say ‘oui’ often enough, it might not be completely obvious to them and reduce the chances of you needing to respond when they‘ve finished speaking. There are questioning ‘ouis’, uttered with a tilt of the head and a furrowed brow, long winded ‘ouuuiiiiis’ which signify agreement and are accompanied by a knowing smile. By now, you get the point.
Finally, like the Guy Pearce character from Memento, I live exclusively in the present tense when I’m speaking French. I’ve long since forgotten the construction of the past and future tenses, which are pretty important in any language, but I camp myself stubbornly in the present tense, as if what I’ve already done is irrelevant and as if I couldn’t care less what I’m going to do, so why bother discussing it.

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