Monday, February 22, 2016

English Monotongue

I have made a few stabs at learning languages other than English without a lot of success. When I was in Morocco over the New Year, it was one of the few times I have travelled in places where English wasn't wide spread. It is easy to be a lazy English speaker given how widespread the language is used. It can also be hard to learn when other people see you butchering their language, so switch into English. Often because they want to practice it too. In Morocco, the 'commercial language' isn't English. It is French. English is only widespread within a bubble.

Greeting someone in French is easy enough to learn, but after a few days I realised I was being silly. It is like going into the heart of an area that speaks Xhosa in South Africa and learning to say hello in English rather than 'molo'. They can speak French but that is not the home language. North Africa actually gets a little more funky. French is the colonial language, but that is recent. Arabic is the language of religion. Muslims also believe that you can only really get to grips with the Quran if you read it in Arabic. You can read commentaries, but the message can only be read as written. Otherwise it gets lost in translation. The heart is closely tied to the original words in the original tongue.

Markets of Marrakesh 

Estimates of the languages of Africa range from 1200-3000 with about 100 used for inter-ethnic communication. The most useful languages in Africa for communication are Arabic, English and French. Even then, the estimates I see (best sources?) put Arabic as the most widely spoken at about 17% of the population. This still feels odd to me, as none of the languages are the local language. I found in Marrakesh that simply learning the greeting and to say thank you in Arabic (salam and shukraan), changed the way I was received. French fine. Arabic better. Berber best. 


Official languages in Africa.svg
Blue - French, Dark Green - Arabic, Pink - English, Light Green - Portuguese

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9839012



Living in South Africa is a humbling experience for an English speaker. When you are in England as I am now, there are still a huge variety of accents, and the accent can often let you know where someone comes from. There are big issues in terms of breaking down class divides. I have been in London rather than other parts of the UK. I did spend 18 months in Chichester when I had just finished school, but I still wouldn't claim to know the whole island even though it isn't much bigger than the province I grew up in. There is lots of variety in approaches to life, but there is a common language. In South Africa, when someone struggles in English, it can be tempting to see that as an indication that they are not intelligent. That you are better. The irony is that if someone is struggling in English, it is a pretty safe bet that they speak multiple languages. Probably not just two. Put that in your smoke and pipe it. South Africa has 11 official languages.


I spent about 8 years studying Afrikaans at school and my Afrikaans is not as good as most the English of people who regularly get mocked for the accents or stumbling over words. It is probably analogous to Europe where there are lots of languages. The difference seems to be that a French or Italian person who gets their English jumbled is seen as sexy. There should be a rule that you can only mock someone about your language in their language.   

I am going to carry on trying to overcome whatever barriers are stopping me from getting over my English Monotongue. I believe you need to make an attempt to speak someone's language to get to know them. I also think there are bits of yourself you will discover by learning other languages. Culture is embedded in language. Culture is a different way of seeing the world.

There is lots to see as Global Citizens.
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