I teach English almost every day.
But I live in a place where everyone speaks Malagasy and some people speak French.
So I’m learning Malagasy, and although I’m fluent for a non-native speaker, I’m brushing up on my French, too. Which means that it is not at all uncommon for me to use all three languages within a single sentence, depending on which words make the fastest connection between my brain and my mouth. This happens the most between my host sister, Henintsoa and I. We are both trying to use each other’s respective languages but sometimes we lapse into French without even noticing. And of course there are always the minor pronunciation errors that can create a barrier of understanding on even the most simple of sentences. Like the other day when Henintsoa said he dad “wants to buy a small care.” “A what?” I replied. “He wants to buy a small care.” “Huh?” She tried again before resorting to French. “You know, a voiture!” “OH! He wants to buy a small car!” She nods and we giggle.
I had a similar experience the other day at the store trying to buy phone credit. My phone network is Telma. So I asked in Malagasy if they had Telma credit. But in my typical Midwest American English, I pronounced Telma as tel-muh. The shopkeeper looked confused so I started to throw out phone related vocab in both French and English while repeating “Tel-muh” every so often. Finally I resorted to listing the other cell phone networks in Malagasy. “Not Orange, not Airtel, but Telma.” “OH! You mean Tel-mah!” Ah success at last! As she handed over two of the little green and yellow scratch off cards in exchange for 2000 Ariary, I contemplated how much of an obstacle the mispronunciation of one vowel sound can create.
And then add layers of cultural norms to language learning and life gets really entertaining. Yesterday in my Level 2 English class I was teaching some verbs and as I wrote “to sweep” on the board, one of the students added, “with a broom!” I said yes and then decided to go on to explain that in the U.S., part of my house has carpet, so we have to use a vacuum to sweep. I wrote vacuum on the board and when I saw a few confused faces (I have yet to see carpet in Madagascar) I attempted to explain. “Okay since the floor is like one big rug, we can’t use a regular broom. So we use a vacuum that needs plugged in. (I motioned plugging a cord into a socket.) “Oh!" exclaims one student, making the connection by offering the French word for power. I smile and nod, then offer the English translation of power or electricity. “Okay so it’s a power broom.” I nod in agreement but as I do, I notice one of the students in the front row miming using a ‘power broom’ to blow all of the dirt off of the carpet into a pile on one corner, leaf-blower style. I decide to wait until next week to explain the concept of ‘suction’.
Last but not least, there are the intricacies and constant exceptions of the English language. The other day a student pointed to a cord running to the light socket. “What’s the English name of this?” “It’s a cord,” I replied. “Well then what’s the difference between a cord and string?” I was wearing a string bracelet so I pointed to it and explained that string is usually some kind of fiber and cord is sometimes electrical. But then I acknowledged the exception that the metal parts of a guitar are called strings even though they are metal. And then I realized the irony of the notes played on a guitar being called “chords”, which of course shares a pronunciation with “cords”. But it would only be too logical that a ‘ch’ digraph at the beginning of a word would make the same sound as it does in church or chipmunk, wouldn’t it?
Oh English, je t’aime betsaka.