#29. Scaling The Language Barrier

This blog is complementary to #28 providing an elaboration that was not done.

The enthusiasm with which I arrived in the Republic of Niger to do development work for World Vision International could easily be likened to that of a 100 metres athlete at the beginning of the race; ready for a record-breaking sprint. However, my first meeting with NGO Partners, Government Officials and International Development Partners was a complete disaster. A sheet of paper was passed around with the heading “Ordre du Jour”. I stared blankly at the heading since it meant nothing to me. 

Panic! Panic! 

I soon learnt that the heading meant “Agenda”. The meeting went on for about an hour and I could just understand a few words here and there which put together meant nothing. Documents were distributed and I opened and flipped through them without understanding one full sentence. I could not contribute to the meeting. Even when some people spoke Hausa, the number of French words and phrases included in the Hausa made understanding very difficult. What on earth was I doing here? 

I was here to carry out development work to help alleviate poverty and promote the process to bring many people out of poverty and put them on track for a better future. Unfortunately, I was confronted immediately by a language barrier that I had to scale. The Hausa language that I thought I could speak very well was loaded with French words. The few words I knew in French such as the prices and the names of vehicle spare parts that I picked up while making several visits to Ouagadougou were inadequate for development work. I needed to polish my Hausa by understanding the French words blended into the language and I needed to learn how to speak read and write French. 

Development work is a career that requires engagement with the actors one is dealing with. The main actors are the government of the country in which one is working, partner Non-Governmental Organisations, Development Partners from the Bilateral and Multilateral community and community members in the areas where development work would be carried out. Language is the main vehicle for these engagements and one must identify, speak, read and write the languages of all these actors. I, therefore, tackled this language problem with zeal and with all my strength. 

Step one in my bid to scale the language barrier was to engage a French teacher to teach me french. Through the few friends I made, I found a gentleman called Mack Abubakar Danbargi. He agreed to have a one-hour French class with me at my house on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On day one he assessed the level of French I knew already. He found that the french I knew was woefully inadequate and did not qualify as a working knowledge of the language. In an attempt to conjugate the French equivalent of the verb “to have”, I started correctly and ended up by conjugating the verb “to go” as well. I scratched my head and I regretted not paying attention during Mr D.N Loriba’s French classes in Ghana College. The battle to learn French was on and I was determined to win. 

Step two in my language learning battle was to purchase as many books as possible that would help me. With the recommendation of my French teacher, I headed for “Librarie Labo”(Labo’s Bookshop) the only book shop in Zinder at the time. I bought books on French grammar, rules in the conjugation of French verbs, rules on French spelling and a big French-English/English-French dictionary. Yes! I had ammunition to enter the battle. 

Working with the Peace Corps and teaching young Peace Corps volunteers to learn Ghanaian languages taught me a lot. The Pre-Service Training(PST) for US Peace Corps volunteers usually lasted 12 weeks and during those 12 weeks, many young American volunteers became functionally literate in some Ghanaian languages. Some were able to even give their speeches at the end of the 12 weeks in a local language with the right accent. What I learnt from these language classes was transferred to my language learning in Niger. I split the language into different competencies. The ability to hear and understand was competence number one. The ability to see the words on paper and recognise them and read them correctly was competence number two. The ability to write the language correctly was competence number three and the ability to speak the language confidently without looking into any paper was competence number four. By dividing the language this way one can use different methodologies for learning each competency.

For the ability to hear and understand the language the best methodology is usually to be in an environment where the language is spoken constantly until one begins to understand. For this, my teacher helped me employ four different techniques. Anytime I was at home, I turned my radio to Radio France International and just listened to it until some words began to make sense. For example, on the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the word “chute” came on the radio over and over again until I looked it up in the dictionary to find out that it meant “drop” or “to fall suddenly”. Another technique was to find a group where people spoke French all the time. I found a musical band in the French Cultural Centre led by a gentleman from Benin, comprised of nationals from other countries and supervised by a french man. The multi-national nature of the group compelled them to speak French as their main language.

The keyboard skill I had acquired in Tamale came in very handy. When I introduced myself and told them I could play the keyboard it was good news for them and indeed better news for me. I could sit there listening to all the chatter in French and ask for explanations of the things I did not understand.

I went to the French Cultural Centre to watch French movies in French although I understood less than 5% of the dialogue. I just watched the images and tried to make up what the actors were saying. Sometimes I laughed and clapped when everybody around me laughed and clapped although I did not understand anything. It reminded me of my Form One days in Ghana College, Tamale. Interestingly there were subtitles in French which I tried to read but as anybody will know, reading the subtitles, which I could not read very well, and trying to follow the action while listening to the dialogue was just too much for one person. One thing that I did was to try and remember at least three words in French and then look for their meaning after each movie. On one particular night, I was driving home after a movie when I remembered a word; “ Bien sûr “. I quickly pulled up by a street light and pulled out my English-French dictionary to look for the word. As I flipped through the pages of the dictionary I heard a knock on the side window of the car. There were two policemen asking me to roll down the window and I complied. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I was looking for the meaning of the French word “Bien sûr“. The word meant “of course”. They burst into laughter and said goodnight to me. The following day the Regional Commander of the Police who I got to know within the first week of my stay saw me in town and stopped me. He was laughing very hard and I wanted to know why. He told me that his officers on night patrol found me under a street light looking for the meaning of a French word at 12:30 am. I corrected him that it was actually 12:15 a.m. and that caused even more laughter. This shows the ridiculous extent I went to in learning French. I also went to restaurants with my French teacher, where I would place our order and have any other conversations with the waiter in French, while my teacher stood by to check what I was saying.

In order to read French correctly, I used the Bible as my text because I had a thorough understanding of the English version. I read the Bible aloud to my teacher for 20 minutes three times a week for 6 months. This enabled me to learn to pronounce French words correctly. I had to work very hard on the conjugation of French verbs and writing French words correctly while applying French grammar and spelling rules. It was an uphill task and I was making very little progress. My teacher was getting discouraged and I was beginning to panic. It reminded me of the preamble for my Physics teacher’s exam about a worm trying to climb out of a well. The worm moved 15 inches upwards during the day and slipped back 10 inches during the night.

By my third month, I had made very little progress in my efforts to study French. Then one day I was driving into town when I saw a signboard with the US Peace Corps logo for the first time. I went in the direction indicated by the arrow on the sign and got to the Peace Corps office which was also a home for one of the volunteers. A young lady came out to meet me and was relieved when she realised that my preferred language of communication was English. We laughed and I told her I used to be an Associate Peace Corps Director(APCD) in Ghana. She asked me whether I was making any progress in learning the French language. The answer was “no”. She then brought up a book called “501 French verbs” by Christopher Kendris. She told me that this could help me. I took the book home and read the first 28 pages. By the following morning, I saw the key to learning the French language. 

It seems that many people in the anglophone world speak English sometimes correctly, sometimes wrongly without understanding the basic grammatical rules that underpin the language. The following week I was back in Accra on vacation I decided that I was going to look for the textbooks that were used to teach English when I was in Secondary School. The books were “Practical English”, books 1, 2, 3. These books were written by P. Tregidgo and P.A Ogundipe. 

I dedicated a full day to my search. I found myself walking through a section of Central Accra known as the Tema station. In this station, one can find a number of people selling second-hand books spread out over a polythene sheet that is spread on the ground. I approached one of them and asked for the 3 books. He looked at my face with amusement and disbelief. Why would somebody be looking for textbooks that were used in the 1960s and 1970s in 1996? He then told me he did not have them but I should come back in three days time and he would see what he could do. I came back in 3 days and he was able to find books 2 and 3. He asked for a fortune for the books but at that moment I was more interested in the contents of the book than how much they cost. 

And with my “new” old books, I went back to learn basic English grammar. To my amazement, I found out that I did not really understand the grammatical foundations for the English language I was speaking. For example, in both English and French, each verb can be conjugated in 14 different ways; I did not know that. Also, in English and French, when two verbs are used one after the other, the first verb is conjugated and the second verb is left in the infinitive. For example, in the sentence “I am coming to eat”. The verb “to come” is conjugated and the verb “to eat” is left in the infinitive. A better understanding of the English language gave me a stronger foundation to learn and understand French.

I went back to Niger better prepared to scale the language barrier. My French teacher came back and after one class and giving me an assignment as usual the outcome was completely different. Earlier in my work with him, the best I ever had in an exercise was 4 out of 10. I scored 10 out of 10 in the first assignment he gave me. The following day he was back in my house in a flash staring at me and he asked what had really changed. I showed him the book that was given to me by the US Peace Corps volunteer and the English grammar books I brought back from Ghana. Since then my competence in spoken, written and the ability to read French and English has improved tremendously. 

Two other situations that had a tremendous impact on my French were the people around me in my office and out of my office as well as the courage to say what I wanted to say without the fear of making mistakes. The staff in my office were just fantastic. They always took the time to tell me that what I was saying was wrong and showed me how to say it right. Interestingly my three-year-old daughter came to Niger in 1997 and started going to the nursery school. I learnt so many vocabularies from her nursery rhymes. For example, I learnt the French word for “rabbit“, “ears” and “my back” from her rhymes.

One major aspect of language learning is the concept of contextual language. Every context has its own language. There is a kitchen language, a market language, a travel language, a medical language, a development language etc. For me, the most important contexts I needed to focus on included the economic and social development language. The work environment language as well as the language to use in interaction with NGOs, the Government, and Development Partners. My French teacher made sure that we used development literature in French to increase my competencies in reading, writing and engaging in dialogue in these language contexts. 

By December 1996 I had largely acquired French and Hausa language competencies to be able to be function officially and unofficially in the Republic of Niger. The acquisition of these competencies significantly supported my functionality and accomplishments. I was able to give radio and television interviews, make presentations in forums with other development workers and engage efficiently with anybody that I needed to engage. I will forever be grateful to the different categories of people who contributed to my learning and use of the Hausa and French languages. 

My next blog is subtitled. “Memories Of Nigerians and Nigeria” 


One thought on “#29. Scaling The Language Barrier

  1. We’ve often heard that it takes 10,000 hours to learn anything. However, Sam B, you’ve demonstrated over and over again that with focused deliberate effort it actually takes less than the 10K hours to learn a new skill. Your experiences chronicled in a humorous way have become like a blueprint of invaluable ‘How to …’ guides.


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