How do we classify a person who can speak three languages? Trilingual. How about two languages? Bilingual. What do we call a person who speaks one language? American. I've heard many a laugh over this quiz, but it really is a sad commentary.
I have never mastered a foreign language, to my embarrassment. Yet I have discovered that communicating across language barriers can be done, with confidence and success, by mastering just a few words.
When traveling, I always learn the greeting that is common to the area of the world I'm visiting. Not only are new sounds fun for the tongue to play with, but the translations are often delightful.
I have been told that the Indian greeting "Namaste" means "The god in me is greeting the god in you." In the Moba language of Togo, West Africa, what sounds like "A pal mani?" is asking "Is there joy in your heart today?" The answer, "Ciet andwa," indicates that "My heart is honey-covered."
As we got off a tour bus at our first stop in Turkey, the experienced traveler behind me advised, "Don't make eye contact. All of those merchants are waiting to pounce upon us!" But I have found that eye contact is the first step in making new friends. Knowing the local greeting is the next step.
I stepped off the bus and smiled at the first man who approached me. He brandished a string of pictures and shouted, "One dollah, one dollah! Beautiful postcards!" I responded with the greeting, "Marhaba," which our Turkish guide had taught us. The waving postcards were lowered as the hawker looked at me in surprise and responded with a smile. Then he handed me the long strip of colorful pictures.
"No, I don't have a 'dollah,' and my husband is taking many photographs," I said, handing the strip back to him. But he would not take them, insisting, "They are for you to keep. No charge." His radiant smile showed appreciation for my greeting him in his native tongue. I asked his name, and when he told me "Ramadan," we had an animated conversation about his being born during the Muslim holy celebration. He was still smiling as I waved his cards to him out of the window as our bus pulled away.
"Marhaba" stayed on the tip of my tongue at every stop, and I found the ancient adage "strangers are just friends we haven't met yet" confirmed again and again.
After the local greeting is lodged firmly in memory, I next try to learn the word for "friend." In Turkey I was told to say "arkadeshoon." When I got off the bus to watch some women by the roadside turning grapes to dry them into raisins, I greeted them all. Then I approached the nearest peasant woman and exclaimed "arkadeshoon!" as I pointed to myself, and then to her. Her eyes danced as she pulled me down to kiss me on each cheek. Another word memorized can result in instantaneous friendship.
After spending a greater length of time in Kenya and learning a few sentences in Swahili, I found myself increasingly rewarded. While we were stopped at a remote gas station, I was approached by a small, wizened, and bead-adorned Masai woman. With her hand outstretched, she begged for "shillingi, shillingi." I responded with "Sina shillingi" (I don't have money), "lakini ninataka kuwa rafiki yako" (but I want to be your friend). Her plaintive lament turned to joy as she quickly grabbed my hand and led me to the road. I followed her to the stall where she had been making and selling beaded Masai jewelry. She motioned for me to sit on a small stool, and adorned me with a variety of necklaces and bracelets. I repeatedly exclaimed "Mzuri sana!" (Very beautiful!)
When a honk from the van called me back to our safari, Maria (as she called herself) would not let me take off the last lovely necklace. "Zawadi" (gift) she exclaimed. Then, smiling, she added "rafiki" (friend). A few weeks later, my husband took a picture of us together - though Maria insisted on changing from her Masai finery into a velour dress first. We gave the photo to our daughter when she went to Kenya a year later. She found the same gas station and was directed to Maria's stall. When Maria saw the photo, she burst into tears and hugged my daughter. She put a necklace over my daughter's head and would not let her pay anything for it. Friendship is obviously the most valued commodity.
Another phrase that is rewarding to learn is "I love your country." Riding in a taxi in New York I asked our driver where he was from. "Russia." was his blunt answer. Immediately I exclaimed, "Ya lublio vash narot!" He pulled the cab over to the curb, turned around to look at me, and exclaimed, "No American has ever told me that!" I assured him that they should, for Russia is indeed a land and people of great beauty.
My spelling, pronunciation, and grammar may be faulty, but caring for our world neighbors enough to let them know they are cherished and respected has brought continued rewards into my life.
One does not need to be a linguist to love.