Over the last four years, I have been trying to converse in a foreign language. In Germany, I immersed myself in German, using it every chance I got. I learned to throw caution to the wind and spit out words without worrying about grammar. The important thing was to speak, speak, speak… grammar comes later. I discovered immediately that there are a handful of words, without which, one can not successfully get one’s point across. It is all well and good to have a big vocabulary full of nouns, but if you don’t have the little words that tie them all together, the nouns are useless… not to mention you will sound like a caveman… drink. I. thank you.
My German is useless here in Guinea. French is the local language, along with a number of other tribal languages. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning another language, so I was excited to get started with French. After 5 and a half months in country, I have decided that French is hard. There are so many little words. Some of them are more like sounds then proper words, and I feel like half the time I’m just grunting. I throw in an uh, ay, or ah here and there, hoping for the best. My youngest came home one day from school excited that he could say the word blue. When I asked him to show me, he stuck out his tongue and said “bleh”. The funny thing is, he’s right. That is exactly what it sounds like… bleh.
Recently, I had an incident that reminded me how important those little connecting words are. I put in an order to have an electrical outlet in my living room repaired. The outlet just stopped working and as a result, all the wires from the television, stereo, dvd player, xbox etc, ect… were spread across the floor to the only other outlet in the room. (Does everyone else have thousands of wires behind their telly?).
The two men that came to trouble shoot the problem, both spoke French and a little English. Normally, when someone here says they speak only a little English, their English is far better then my French, so we stick to English. This time, however, their English was about as good as my French… I knew right away, we were going to get into trouble.
After the man looked at the outlet, tested what he could, and checked the breakers, he deemed it fine. It seemed to be working. It’s not surprising, really. It’s like when you bring your car to the work shop… you have to explain the problem to the mechanic (sounds and all), because no matter what you do, you can’t get the problem to reoccur while your in the auto shop!
The technician turns to me and says, in English,
“You have problem, call supervisor, he send technician.”
Now hang on a tick… did he just say I have a problem? I thought he said everything was working and there was no problem… so I ask him… in English,
“What is the problem? What do I tell the supervisor? I thought you were the technician?”
To which he responds,
“No, you have problem, you call supervisor.”
“But I don’t know what the problem is… what do I tell the supervisor? What is the problem?”
“No, no. You call supervisor, you need technician”
My frustration level begins to rise…
“But WHAT IS the problem? What do I TELL the supervisor? Can YOU call supervisor, tell him what problem is?” (notice my pigeon English starting to kick in… maybe he will understand me better?)
(he rolls his eyes) “No, I no call supervisor. You have problem, you call supervisor, he send technician.”
Out of desperation, I start speaking French…
“But I don’t know problem. I don’t know say problem at supervisor. I have need technician now. YOU call supervisor, tell he problem now” (as embarrassing as this is… I felt it only fair to directly translate what I actually said, and not what I was trying to say. That way you can fully appreciate my inability to communicate.).
The technician started speaking in French… You see, this is where I get into trouble. By asking a question in French, I am also suggesting that I am able to carry on a conversation in French. The person to whom I am speaking assumes that I am able to understand their reply. I can string together a sentence, albeit it rough, but I can only understand about 2% of the answer in return. Essentially, what this means is, I ask, he answers, I ask the same question, he answers the same question… it goes on and on in a circle.
It was in this circle that I suddenly realized what we were missing. That simple little seemingly insignificant word, ‘If”. I did not know how to say it in French and he did not know how to say it in English. Could it be this silly little two letter word that is causing all this confusion?
“If?” I ask, “Do you mean, IF I have a problem?”
“YES!! YES!! IF”
He means, “IF I HAVE A PROBLEM!” Ah, it is all clear to me now. IF I have a problem, I should call the supervisor, yadda, yadda, yadda… geez…IF!
For those interested, the word ‘If’ in French is ‘Si’. It is now on my list of ‘important words to learn first, in any language’… and I will never forget it. ARGH!