What Mandela taught me about language

Hint: it’s not just for communicating

I mentioned in my previous post that I learned Hausa during my year in the north. That’s not the entire story, though.

You see, from the start of my time in Gombe, I set out to learn Hausa. Right from orientation camp, I bought a language book and CDs (both of which proved barely helpful, but they did prove my seriousness). I spoke as often as I could, braving the frequently attendant laughs at how I murdered the language. And by six months in, I was quite comfortable speaking Hausa. (Especially medical and market Hausa, the two contexts in which I had the most experience.)

But then I noticed something odd.

Nobody seemed to care. I was expecting my ability to speak Hausa would delight the people I got to meet. I mean, I’d seen that happen on camp: when you spoke Hausa, even falteringly, just the fact that you were trying would often get people smiling and more open to you. But that simply wasn’t happening where I was serving. People would respond, alright, but not necessarily with emotion.

It took me well past six months to finally realise what I’d been missing, and it was something major. You see, in Billiri, where I served (and also in nearby Kaltungo), the predominant ethnic group was (and remains) the Tangale people.

And I wasn’t speaking their language.

In speaking Hausa, I was speaking the language they understood, but it was totally not their own language. The great Nelson Mandela captured this best:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

I was getting through to their head, their understanding. But I was not getting through to their heart. That’s why I wasn’t getting any smiles. I wasn’t eliciting any joy. It was all intellect, but little emotion.

When I set about rectifying my error, even though it was too late to gain any real proficiency in Tangale, my faltering attempts did finally produce the expected response. When I said, “Dibi tom!” the faces of my hosts would light up as they replied, “Tomi lele!” (Never mind that the preceding constituted about 50% of my total language store.)

But it proved once again that Mandela was right. A language is about many things. It’s about communication, but it’s not just that, or humanity would have since agreed on one language and made life easier for everyone.

Language is about identity.

When you speak a language someone understands, you communicate. It’s not personal, just business. But when you speak someone’s language, then you go beyond communication. You identify with them. You say, “I’m one of you—or at least I’m trying to be.”

And the fact that you’re trying means you think they’re that important.

And when you don’t show interest in the language of another person or group, you’re making a statement about them. That’s why oppressors have historically often tried to wipe out the language of the oppressed, and why a key focus of resistance movements has often included keeping language alive, and why new groups always develop new language.

But this doesn’t only apply to ethnic groups and languages in a strict linguistic sense. It also applies to every other kind of language.

When you speak the language of your profession, others know you’re one of them. When you speak the slang of your friends, you self-identify as part of the group. And when you do the work to learn your spouse’s love language, you’re signalling how highly you value them.

So…what language are you working on?


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