Language Learning And The Desire To Do Something


“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)

Still learning Bambara, it has been a slow process for me.  Heck I still mangle French after working in French West Africa for over twenty years.

I  understand Moritz’s desire to be with people , and to do something, anything. Africa is so alive that I hate to miss it locked away inside. I live to do things with people and that requires being far, far away from my office. Maybe this is my single greatest strength as a humanitarian, no? Yet, possibly also my single greatest downfall to time spent in front of language books.

The single greatest window to understanding and immersion with a people is language. Yet, I remind myself that neither of us are speaking our mother tongue, if I use either Bambara or French. Both of these languages are a second or third language for almost everyone I deal with here. So how purist do we really need to be when communication is really the end goal?

“When an African man was asked how he had learned a new language, he replied, “I went to where the people were, and I sat down.”

I have no problem sitting down with people, it’s sitting down with books that I struggle with. There is so, so much to do here. “The days go rushing by; we want to do something.”  (Moritz Thomsen )

Tell me what you want to do?

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” (T.S. Eliot.  Little Gidding)

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