10 June 2016

The Chinese Dialect of Hausa

When I was in high school, in order to graduate, we had to take either two years each of two foreign languages or three years of one.  At that time, only Latin, French and Spanish were offered (American Sign Language was considered an elective) . . . and my parents gave us the choice of studying Latin or Latin--believing it would be helpful for us with the SAT exam and futures in areas such as law or medicine.

If only I had understood then what I know now: I'm a tactile learner and language as a concept is lost on me.
As a kid I got good grades.  Sure I could have tried harder and gotten perfect scores, but I had lots of interests that rounded me out and in the end I've been successfully enough that who-the-heck-really-cares that I had an A-B average when I was done with school instead of All A's.  It just doesn't matter after 18.

Even in math class, I managed to get it enough in the moment to pass the tests and knew better than to take advanced trigonometry.  

But then there was Latin. 

I had a wonderful teacher, who loved that dead language and knew what a legacy it is to so many cultures, including our own.  She made it fun . . . most of the time. 

You see, language is supposed to be alive . . . but Latin, well, it was already long dead and as they say:
Latin in a language, as dead as dead can be.  First it killed the Romans, and now it's killing me.
Our curriculum was encompassed by memorizing vocabulary, understanding grammar and writing out translations.  Once in a blue moon we were asked to pronounce something out loud . . . but that was just as much of a disaster as trying to convert the meaning Livy's words into something concrete in English.

Latin was an abstract set of blueprints . . . and I needed the actual legos in my grubby little hands to try and make sense of it all.

But some of us don't learn our lesson the first time . . . or the second.

Some of us continue to repeat the mistakes of our youth and bear the consequences of pain and anguish . . . isn't there some quip about that being the very definition of crazy??


Like the other day when Maiguida and I were in our Hausa class.

It was the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and knowing that our teach would be observant and disciplined, we wanted to make sure the room where we'd be studying was cooled down and comfortable to make it easier for focus and concentration.

But, the power went out half an hour before he arrived . . . and it didn't come on again until about 5 minutes before he left.  It's Damana (rainy season) right now, but it hadn't rained for over a week, so the humidity was high, despite a cloudless sky.

Knowing I wouldn't be able to bear the misery of the heat-humidity-Hausa combination, Maiguida saved the day and moved a table and chairs out onto the covered porch of the house we're borrowing for the month.  At least we wouldn't have four walls, on the off chance of a very small miracle that would be a breeze.

As we began, it was clear our teacher was tired and not-yet-used-to making it from sunrise to sunset without food or water (some believe they shouldn't even swallow their saliva, but our teacher has too much pedigree to spit on our floor, and we appreciate that).  But as he spoke to us in Hausa and began giving us oral assignments, it became clear that I too was not-yet-used-to making it from sunrise to sunset without my mother-tongue.

Mistake after mistake.  Blunder after blunder.

I blamed the heat and humidity . . . but it didn't help.

After two and a half hours of torture that I thought would never end, our teacher decided to give us a test.  The first part would consist of a series of sentences that he would read in French, then we would repeat to him in Hausa.  Maiguida aced it, I bumbled through.

Then came the second part: he would speak to us in Hausa, we would translate into French.

Foolishly, I thought this would be a chance to redeem myself . . . a moment to prove that I wasn't as ridiculous as I appeared to be.

I was chosen to go first.

"Wova lkajslvkjaiw  alkvlk jiaw clkaj vijw klva vlaskjcwicj adl," our teacher read.

"Koma?" I asked him to read it again.

"Wova lkajslvkjaiw  alkvlk jiaw clkaj vijw klva vlaskjcwicj adl."

I stared at him.  I hadn't understood one single word.

He recognized that I didn't yet have the phrase, so he repeated it again: "Wova lkajslvkjaiw  alkvlk jiaw clkaj vijw klva vlaskjcwicj adl."

Still nothing.

Not.  One.  Word.

I started to laugh.

He tried again: "Wova lkajslvkjaiw  alkvlk jiaw clkaj vijw klva vlaskjcwicj adl."

I laughed harder.


I kept laughing.

This time our teacher joined me in laughing.  "It's Chinese!!" he said as we continued to laugh.

"WOVA . . . LKAJSLVKJAIW . . . ALKVLK . . . JIAW . . . CLKAJ . . . VIJW . . . KLVA . . . VLASKJCWICJ . . . ADL," he tried again, this time nice and slowly.

Finally Maiguida chimed in with a suggested translation.

"YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?!?!?" I asked him, shocked and impressed, and feeling even more like an idiot.

"You didn't lose your keys, they're inside," our teacher corrected a singular noun that had been mistaken for another word that is spelled the same just is pronounced with a different tone.

I stared at the two of them.  What keys??  Sure we had left the house keys inside while we were roasting on the front porch, but what's that got to do with this silly Chinese sentence that we're being conned into believing is Hausa???

As the two of them sat there exchanging the niceties of proper pronunciation and syntax, I sat and laughed some more, wondering where I could find a straight jacket.

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