10 March 2011

Language Learning . . . Take Two

It's 4am in Niger . . . I've been up since around 2 . . . unable to sleep because of the heat, I turned on my air conditioner . . . tried again, but to no avail.  So, what does one do at 4am in Galmi??  Write a blog post of course!  (Hey, I find it therapeutic!)

After a year and a half in a classroom studying French, my brain needs a break!  The hard part is, that while I can communicate with the nursing staff and most of the hospital support staff, I cannot effectively communicate with my patients sans translator.  So I've begun some 'independent study' to try to make sense of the Hausa language.  (I keep reminding myself that there was time in the very recent past when French was still unintelligible noise . . . and just yesterday I had a meeting with the hospital administration to explain who I am, what I do, why I'm here, what I foresee the therapy department looking like, my goals for the next two years, along with their expectations and desires . . . TOUT EN FRANÇAIS!)

Hausa is a language that relies heavily on pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, it, they, etc) to express time and tense (am vs. was, were, will be, had been, being, having had been, going to be, are, should be, could have been, etc).  So after copying the first pronoun chart into mon cerveau (the pocket-sized notebook that contains all the charts, graphs, pictures, and grammar rules that are my interpretation of the French language . . . if I know it in French, it's in that book) I gave up for the night, feeling completely overwhelmed.

Hausa-Self-Study Plan B: pay attention.

Believe it or not, it's working.  I think I have successfully learned the routine of greetings (many thanks to the guys in the workshop and housekeeping along with the nursing staff and many family members of patients).

But not all language is oral . . . and not all oral is spoken.

This week I have learned to very important Hausa words . . . but neither are actual 'words'!  The first would be the non-verbal 'word' of the raised fist.  In some contexts, shaking one's fist in the air means 'revolution' or 'you had better watch your back' . . . but here it means something along the lines of 'encouragement' or 'way to go' or 'white lady, you're botching up our language but we find you funny anyway, so keep going, don't give up!  Hausa is the best language, you'll get there kadan kadan' (little by little).   (oh and two open palms in the air isn't so much 'Raising the roof' as it is 'Hi!  Good to see you!')

The second one, I noticed for the first time at the funeral last Friday.  When we were at the family's house, sitting with the mom and the old woman started to pray, the women were silent . . . mostly.  One by one they started clicking.  It was a closed-mouth, almost guttural click, you know, the way a good Baptist will whisper 'Amen' or 'Yes, Lord!' and a Pentecostal will shout out 'Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!'  Then, on Tuesday I was making a splint for a six year old little girl . . . I think she's afraid of me, because whenever I'm around she won't speak.  So while I was making the splint, I kept asking her if it was okay, if she was doing alright.  She never said a word, just clicked in response.

If there's one thing I've learned through studying a new language and living in another culture, the correctness of the assumptions one draws of the lingo-cultural definition of what's going on is proportional to the  amount of time one has spent in said language/culture . . . I'm still in the Less Than 10% phase, so while I assumed this click meant something along the lines of 'yes' or 'I'm in agreement' I wanted to clarify before trying to use it myself.

Sure enough, my meaning was right.  What I wasn't expecting, however, is that it is only used by women and girls.  I have no idea why this is (I have a few theories), and I'd love to find out . . . if there even is a widely understood 'why' behind it.  But I found it fascinating!

So here's to the raised fists, open palms, and clicking that is the cultural side of language learning.  (click, click!)


Deborah said...

Please note, that's clicking . . . NOT clucking!

Deborah said...

Please note, that's clicking . . . NOT clucking!