For all of us living in Haiti, learning a new language has become part of our reality. For some it comes naturally, and for others it’s more of a challenge. Regardless, it is a valuable tool for each of us. Learning the language is a powerful way to show our investment in the relationships we form with our Haitian brothers and sisters AND their culture. But it takes some time and the miscommunication in the early stages usually involves lots of laughter!
This post is written by Kerry Nutting, one of our nurses, from her blog “Of being occupied by Christ – a blog”
“Language is such an intriguing, incredible, mind-boggling concept. One time, as I listened to a group of nannies here talk to each other, I had to laugh at myself (might have even laughed out loud) when I realized that I was thinking to myself, how do they do that? How do they understand each other? I know. Ridiculous. You are welcome to laugh, too, at the simplicity of my ability to reach a point of wonder and awe. Just ask my parents – I always have been the ‘question-asker’ who found the most random things to ask questions about, paired with determination to understand the answer, however unanswerable or absurd the question….. But isn’t it cool?? Cool how a different arrangement of sounds and structures becomes an entirely different way of communicating? I don’t quite know how to express, through language, my curiosity and fascination of this concept.
As I am learning to communicate here in Haiti through the Creole language, it is so exhilarating when what I say is understood. I just arranged and vocalized sounds and letters and words into a pattern that make sense to this person! Granted, most of my sentences are limited to simple one-to-three word statements or questions, but at least that is sufficient for expression commands and requests to the little kiddos around here. And the nannies are so patient and helpful as I piece together the words I know into incomplete sentences. Paired with some charades and actions, the point is generally communicated correctly…I think.
Just the other night, a nanny came to me with a request. She said a whole bunch of words that I did not recognize and kept pointing to her hand. I nodded, pretending I knew what she said, went to the pharmacy and returned with lotion. She smiled, declined, and tried again. Ok. Hand sanitizer maybe? Worth a try, and I hoped I was right. Wrong again. Tried to pay a little more attention to her hand gestures as she went through the routine again. I left and returned a third time with a pair of medical gloves. Wi! Gan! Mesi! (Yes! Gloves! Thank you!) We laughed and hugged and reiterated a few more times the vocabulary word as she spoke it again and I repeated it after her. She also asked me what it was in English. Gan = Glove. Glove = Gan. Got it. This is one of many charade and teaching lessons I have received. Must be a hilarious exchange to witness.
But as exciting as it is to be understanding and communicating in a different language more and more, it is also frustrating and limiting. I’ve worked alongside these nannies for over a month now, and my interaction is limited to greetings and formalities. Possibly a short conversation about how their family is doing, how many kids they have and what their names are, if I am feeling bold. Or the people who come to our gate from the community with a medical need – I will ask the simple question I’ve rehearsed and cross my fingers for a yes or no response, but inevitably they will begin talking at length about why they came and what they need. Understandable. That they would tell me why they came, that is. Not understandable in terms of me actually understanding what they said. Fortunately there are people around who can translate, but it just seems impossible to me that I could ever reach I point where I might understand even 75% of the sentence. That I could ever be able to explain what I am doing, give instructions, understand questions, and respond appropriately. I am not overwhelmed, really, I know I will understand more and more with time. I am just impatient. I want to be able to do all that now! Slowly but surely. Until then, Mwen pa konprann…Pale dousman souple (I don’t understand…speak slowly please) will have to suffice.
One more story – in this case, I understood the entire sentence that the nanny was asking me. But in my literal translation, it just didn’t make sense. In my small vocabulary reserve, I understood her to be asking, Don’t you remember your mom and dad in America? I thought to myself, Of course I remember them. Why wouldn’t I remember them? How do I respond? What answer would make sense? As I thought about it, I wondered if perhaps the word I understood as “remember” also meant “to miss” or something comparable. Whether or not that assumption is right, I answered, Wi. Mwen sonje yo. Yes, I remember/miss them. Correct in either case.”