Language as a Cultural Bridge


Not long ago, at an event for AmeriCorps called "Life After AmeriCorps", I sat on a panel with a former Peace Corps worker. The subject turned to foreign languages and their role in creating a bond with locals. She had worked in Azerbaijan, and talked of the use of Azerbaijani. Since it was once part of the Soviet Union, Russian is spoken by many, but it is not the way to their hearts, and will certainly not thrill them the way your use of their language will!  

Anyone who has traveled has language stories to tell. Just recently, on a trip to Vietnam, a taxi driver was convinced that if he repeated something enough I would eventually understand him. Hardly! I wish that were the case. Nothing makes you want to learn a language more than these awkward encounters. That’s one we’ve all been through. 

panakkaranHere in Denver, I often run into a Kenyan who works as a janitor in a local building. When I learned he was Kenyan, I began greeting him each time with a “jambo”, the standard Swahili greeting. Of course the first time I did this, he launched into a conversation in Swahili that was far beyond my one-word vocabulary. Now he’ll occasionally try to teach me a new word or phrase, but I’m still stuck at a number hovering around 10! Oh well. In any event, what really matters is that each time he sees me he breaks into a big smile and yells out “jambo” followed by a laugh. With one word, a bond was created between us. In a way, my use of the word is a validation of his culture, a recognition that he is more than just a foreign presence, he is a Kenyan.

On that note, when in Kenya, you should learn these basic Swahili greetings. They expect it. After all, most of them speak three languages – their tribal language, Swahili, and English. Why can’t you at least learn a few words? It goes a long way.

Even with a very limited vocabulary, if you are shrewd with your timing, you can score some great successes, especially when people don’t expect you to know the language. In South India once, I was getting on a bus when some village kids ran up and asked for rupees: "ஒரு ரூபாய், ஒரு ரூபாய்!" One of the kids accidentally dropped some coins he had in his hand. I turned to him and said in Tamil, “Ah, panakkaran” (பணக்காரன்) Rich man! His friends thought this was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They laughed hysterically and chanted "panakkaran, panakkaran" over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if that remains his nickname until his dying day.

Want to use your Ki-Swahili or your Tamil? We work in Kenya and Tanzania where Swahili is spoke, and we work in South India's Tamil Nadu State: Kenya, Tanzania, India

By Kevin O'Neill


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