Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Double Click

One of my favorite things about traveling is learning local languages. Sometimes I make a real effort to learn and take classes abroad (e.g., Wolof, Spanish), and other times I just try to pick things up informally (e.g., Russian and Brazilian – neither of which I can actually speak).

The mother tongue of Basotho people is Sesotho (Sotho), a Bantu language distantly related to Swahili. All Bantu languages share close similarities – a simple tense structure, lack of grammatical cases, phonetic pronunciation, common vocabulary and unusual treatment of gender. Of the major Western languages, English has one gender, French and Spanish have two genders, and others – Latin, Greek, Russian, German – have three. In Bantu languages like Swahili and Sotho, there are not “male” and “female” classes of words like in Spanish, but rather many (often more than 12) categories that refer to different sorts of things (e.g., people, abstract concepts, natural things, foreign words). Although it’s different from what most Westerners are used to, it’s very logical once you start using it. But it does take time to learn, on top of the small number of “clicking” sounds in Sesotho.

In preparation for coming here, I bought myself an audio CD for Christmas: “Talk Now! Learn Sesotho” by euroTalk. At a whopping $25, I was expecting to at least sort of learn the language. But I didn’t; the euroTalk CD is probably the single most disappointing language guide I’ve ever used. Do not buy from that series unless you absolutely have to! Thanks to euroTalk, my vocabulary now consists of colors, Sesotho names for Western food, numbers, and highly formal greetings… and my grammar is non-existent.

Nonetheless, I had a (fleeting) moment of success last night when I was able to order a glass of red wine in Sotho! The waiter actually understood what I was saying, since “one glass of red wine, please” combines the otherwise useless euroTalk vocabulary of colors (red), food (wine), numbers (one) and formal phrases (please). To be honest, it was a hollow victory – I actually wanted a glass of white wine but forgot the word for white, “tsweu.” Still, it was progress.

Not that speaking Sotho is necessary for the work we’re doing in Maseru. The partners I am working with here are either expats or highly educated Basotho who speak English perfectly. From what I gather, though, things get trickier once you get into the villages. Better have those clicks ready after all.

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