Linguistically Humbled Humanitarians – A Bambara Language Study Day

Today is the beginning of Bambara Language study. Wish I could say I was excited about it, but I’m not. Like most people, I wish I could speak Bambara well, but often lack the time, and sometimes the motivation to do much about it. However, time is no longer an excuse. I have the next few weeks free for mostly language study.

“At times like this, after listening for hours to a language which is badly understood, the brain goes into a paralysis; it closes the doors and shuts up shop. I would sit there trying to look reasonably intelligent but feeling completely useless, my eyes glazed, my mouth hanging open, slowly drowning in a flood of strange, soft sounds. Of course, what was happening and what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was getting some additional basic training. The first few months he is in a new country the Volunteer’s biggest problem is simply communication, and especially on the technical level where he hopes to work. But after the months of training we are too impatient. The days go rushing by; we want to do something.” (Living Poor. A Peace Corps Chronicle. Moritz Thomsen. Pg 26)

This author articulated the language struggle very well. We all want to get out there and do something tangible, and language progress seems like a small accomplishment each day in a country where people are malnourished or displaced.

We speak French, so we are able to function in Mali, West Africa, since French is an official language of this country. The schools teach in French, and government offices and most stores do operate in French. However, in the local markets of Sikasso, Bambara is needed, and in villages outside of any town in Mali, French is almost non-functional. There are always people who speak French, and can translate for me to non-French speakers. However, French is not spoken by most women in most villages.

I have been told that fighting the temptation to “get out there” is better in the long term because lack of language skills can hang you later. That is true. However, I think there is a flip side as well. Building language skills while you are out there is good too. Great language cannot compensate for poorly developed, or nonexistent, relationships, which is what you end up with if you are holed up in an office all the time. It would surprise you how many people come to Africa speaking their languages, but leave without any significant enduring relationships left behind.

My mentor Lew Cass was a huge fan of bypassing language schools. He had seen more than enough people arrive with language in place, but not knowing the people, the region, or the customs. They charge right in because they can speak, but they don’t understand, and they do not have the relationships built to charge right in to projects with people. This often leads to some serious tensions, he would say.  Lew felt it was best to learn about culture, the place, customs, your neighbors, and people at the same speed as you learn a language.

We westerners often arrive with a high social position, that it is good for us to be humbled like a child while learning. We need to be in a position of vulnerability with our neighbors because we really do have to rely on local people for guidance, wisdom and help.

Being the blunt end of a good belly laugh from some cultural or language faux pas is humbling, sometimes downright embarrassing. But it makes us more accessible, human, fallible, and real, to the local people. We can never have real friendships and relationships from a pedestal. Makes no difference if we have arrogantly placed ourselves up there, or the locals put us up there (and they do in Mali). Fumbling with language, asking for help with it, laughing over it all, strips barriers away quickly.

I never had the opportunity to study French at a language school. I did study French in public school as a Canadian, and I did register for a casual refresher course at a university before moving to Ivory Coast. The professor, Madame Lutfe, a true Parisian, with her flamboyant scarfs, rich perfume, right down to her spectacularly glittery high heel shoes, assured us that what we learned about French in school would come back to us. I can honestly say I was lost in the casual French class. There was not one thing we covered in that class that enabled me to exclaim, “Hey, I remember learning that in school!”. I truly did not remember anything. I did not even remember there was a thing called verb conjugation, and that French verbs required this. You French speakers reading this know how very elemental this is to the French language. Yes, I was that lost in the language process.

The casual French course enabled me to get a little foundation before I arrived in Ivory Coast in 1995 with my family. But I certainly could not speak French.

I learned to speak in the rain forest of Ivory Coast, as I practiced with people. At one point, I actually hired a retired elementary professor to tutor me a few days each week. We met together for a month or so, then asked a friend of his to come and “rate” the level of French I achieved to this point. I sat through twenty minutes of dialogue and response with this “tester”. I felt dumb.

My tutor returned the next day smiling as he declared that I achieved a grade three level in French (Like a child in third grade in public school). It was good news, or so I found out later. However, all I heard at the time was that I was speaking at the level of a helpless child. He was to tutor me for several hours that day. However, I faked a sickness and ended the lesson early. I called and canceled the next scheduled class, then the next, and the next. My last call to him saw me leaving a message with his wife that said not to bother coming until I call him and tell him I am ready. He knew something was up, and he came by the house one day asking my wife what was happening. She told him that I was rather discouraged at the  news. He scheduled another session and told my wife to assure that I was home to meet him, because he was coming. I was home to meet with him, though I did not want to.

He asked me what the issue was, and I told him how I felt, and how discouraged I was. My elderly tutor then lectured me about my progress. He told me to stop and consider what a grade three student can do, and say, and how they can function around the town of Abengourou. He pointed out all the things a third grade student can do well, functioning just fine.  Being at this level after being in the country three months, and only one month of tutoring was exceptional, he said. I did not feel very exceptional. Let’s face it, I’m no linguist, and I have little patience or love for sitting in an office. It’s getting worse as I get older, and here we go again with another language.

I had a few more lessons with my French tutor, but really I was able to start building my French language as I interacted with people.  At one point I did register for a French class in Abidjan at the university, and we were going to move down there for three months. I was dreading the thought. That never materialized for good reason.

The real language crunch came about six months in. One teammate couple were returning to Canada for six months, leaving my mentor Lew and I there to carry on. However, only two weeks later Lew had a serious health issue and I had to take him and his wife to Abidjan and put them on a plane back to the USA to seek medical help.

These colleagues had training classes going for nearly forty men. A few days before I dropped the Cass family at the airport, Lew came over and handed me the Leadership Training Manual and told me I had to finish teaching the course. I looked at him all googly eyed. “This is a joke right? I can barely speak and write French,”  I said.  He assured me it was not a joke, and reminded me that I was all they had right now; it had to be done.  Lew had completed three weeks of a fifteen week training. I now had to lead the training program for the remaining twelve weeks. I was in over my head.

I read the training manual every day, all day, each week,  with a “French English Dictionary” beside the training books. At first I had to look up almost every single word.  It took hours and hours, and it was exhausting. However, I struggled through the course, to the great patience of the men involved. They suffered as much as I did. But they were kind to me, and they still learned and understood. Everyone passed the final exam.

As each week passed, I found that I was looking up less and less words, and I was building great relationships with men from villages all over the region. That is how I learned French.

I had a few Africans who met me when we first came, and a year later we were at a meeting together again, and they were amazed at how “quickly I learned French”. They told me of our first meeting and how they pitied me when I first arrived. speaking barely a word. They were being kind with their words, though it is true I had considerably progressed.

I had a great ear for French; I understood almost everything people said early on, but speaking it was difficult for me. Now I just spill French out, and to this day my grammar structure is atrocious, but people understand me just fine. Here in Mali, their French is as bad as mine so we get along just fine.

However, we are now learning Bambara.  We had so much work to do to launch the Man Of Peace program in Mali that we were not able to take much time studying Bambara, and relied on our French. However, we are progressing. When I look at the Peace Corp Bambara Primer that so overwhelmned us in the beginning, and those basic lessons are understood and used in our daily lives now. We have long since surpassed that level. However, beyond greetings and the cultural “Blessings” we can do little more with Bambara. So this term we are spending more time in language study. It begins today.

Our villages are not quite ready for the dry season community development work yet. They still have some harvesting to wrap up. Things like peanuts, cotton and some millet are still being harvested.  This will give me two or three weeks to study Bambara, now that we have the base all set up. Wish me luck; I’ll need it. I’m no linguist, but I do love people, and I have no shortage of them to meet and greet each day.

I greeted well over twenty people on the way to the bakery and back this morning. Good morning, did you sleep well, is the family well, is there peace? They ask all this in return too. They laugh at André Coulibaly. “Eh, Coulibaly!” they call from across the street too. The bakery is only seventy five feet from my door. I have all the language teachers I need right here just outside my door in the main market of Sikasso. I simply need the courage and motivation to delve into these language books on my desk. One is written in English, two are written in French. There’s the fact, Jack. I have three different languages sitting on my desk today, all focusing me on Bambara.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be honest; for me this is a  considerable head twister.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Musings says:

    My son was hoping that he’d become adept at French by taking the peace corps assignment in Mali. Instead he ended up learning Bambara more.


    1. Bambara is much more practical here, as you now know from your sons experience. We function fine with French, but it is limiting. We simply need to build our Bambara skills over time. Our people actually speak yet another oral language that is unwritten, and no books to help you learn it. Since they are 100% fluent in Bambara, this is the way to go for us as well. Thanks for hob-nobing…


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