28 March 2013

Language Learning and Other Disasters

Three weeks ago I officially started studying Hausa.  I'm working with a tutor twice a week . . . and I'm already having flashbacks of the trauma of learning French.  

But this time, I'm in it alone . . . no classmates to cry with . . . no one else to explain it to me if I'm not getting it . . . no one to talk me down off the ledge.

And instead of having a language school . . . with professors who hold degrees in teaching others to speak and understand . . . and a proven curriculum to organize and guide . . . I have a native Hausa speaker, an empty notebook and a set of colored pencils.
Learning a new language is daunting and tough.  

It requires discipline, endurance and perseverance.  

It demands a certain amount of humility and childlikeness.  

And time.  Lots and lots of time.  

But, with the way I learn language, there are three key ingredients, without which, I'd never get anywhere: animation, crayons and laughter.

There is a phrase I have come to use more frequently than any other since moving to Niger: I don't speak Hausa!

When accompanied by the blank stare, it really goes a long way.

But lately, I've been feeling confident in my learning process.  My tutor, S., and I have been working on the words I need for work . . . the phrase I say all the time . . . like: lift your right arm and turn on to your stomach.  She introduces the words in the morning, and I put them to use in the afternoon.  

There is something very empowering that comes with the capacity to give a verbal command and have it followed . . . at least, I remember how empowered I felt . . . back when I lived in a world where my patients could understand me.

This afternoon, B. and I were working with a complicated patient who had been in a car accident and now has multiple traumatic injuries.  Our instructions from the surgeon were: do anything you can.

Trying hard to let B. have some autonomy and independence with the skills he's already acquired, I backed off and let him take the lead . . . okay, so eventually I had to walk away to stop interrupting his treatment session . . . but the point is, I didn't have to say much.

At the end, I had one more thing I wanted to add, and told our patient, in Hausa, that the more time he spends not laying down, the less dizziness he will have when he sits or stands up.  The guy answered 'uh-huh' in agreement.

Without thinking about it, B. repeated exactly what I said.  This time the guy said 'Oh!  Okay!'

'WAIT A MINUTE!!!' I said to B.  'That's EXACTLY what I said!'

He looked up from the patient's IV port that he had been re-taping and flashed me a guilty smile.

'I said that in HAUSA!!!  And you STILL had to translate?!?!'

He started to laugh . . . and that's when the patient caught on and laughed too.  

'You know, I'm with you all the time,' he said.  'I've learned to understand what you mean to say . . . but . . . sometimes . . . most people . . . uh . . . have a little trouble with your . . . accent!'

'MY ACCENT?!?!' I said, over dramatically, as the room filled with giggles.  

So much for trying!


Michelle said...

I continually have exactly the same experience of translating from Hausa to Hausa! Thankfully, I've found that if you can get someone to be patient for just a few days, they start to understand your Hausa too. Sannu da 'ko'kari; Allah Ya taimako!!

Will O. said...

Deb!! It's Will O'Kelley! I hope you remember me from two summers ago! I have been incredibly out of touch, but am wanting to try and re-connect with you and the rest of the Galmi staff that i got to know two summers ago. How are things? I am really wanting to make it back to Galmi sometime. A lot has changed in two years--I'm married:) about to graduate college, and on the fence about whether I should attend Emory University for an accelerated nurse-midwife degree, or look to do something different? How much does Galmi need a family nurse midwife? I'm trying to seek God's will on it, but have recently been discouraged by the price tag associated with the degree. Do you have an email address I could reach you at?