That’s not what I meant: On goats, peanuts, and exercise regimens in Haiti

Dèyè mon gen mon.

This well-known Haitian proverb is probably not new to you. Behind mountains there are mountains; you move past one trial or obstacle only to find a new one.

In my experience at least, the more Creole I learn, the more mountains appear. It’s easy to feel really good about that first step because the jump from absolutely nothing to even a little something is so significant, and so quick!  But progress from that point on is slower, and advancing is a much more arduous task.

My best advice? Perseverance, humility, patience and a strong sense of humor. Besides the regular challenges of building vocabulary, sharpening your listening comprehension, and working up the courage to speak in a variety of settings, learning a new language also builds some other, less anticipated skills, like the art of mastering awkward situations.

[Mastering might be a stretch, but to be successful, you’ll at least have to learn how to accept them.]

One of the biggest favors you can do yourself is to get comfortable with awkward silences, and get over them. Words slip away, and you can spend what seems like ages searching for the right word while the person across from you waits patiently for you to say something.

If you’re the one doing the listening, be that person, give the speaker a chance to find the word they’re looking for! Jump in to help only after you’re certain you’ve given them a chance to speak, but don’t let your discomfort muddle the situation.

If you’re the speaker, and you think there’s a way you can get your point across, go for it! Language learning is a fantastic adventure and as new learners we have the chance to get creative, and to start building bridges that only come when we let our guard down. You might not ever hear the end of it, but what’s a laugh between friends?

In the spirit of sharing a good laugh, here are just a few examples of language fumbles from personal experience, and the experience of close friends (shared with permission of course):

  1. In an attempt to describe the difference between a peanut with its shell versus one without, I casually referred to the latter as a: “Pistache san kay” [Lit. A homeless nut]
  1. Overcome with the excitement of seeing a free ranging baby goat (because let’s face it, there just aren’t that many stray goats roaming the streets in the Midwest) my friend joyously exclaimed: “Gade, timoun kabrit!” [Lit. Look, goat child!]

Her Haitian friends still affectionately refer to her as goat-child.

  1. Another friend arrived in the country with some language skills already in place, including an understanding of anfòm as a word meaning “in shape”, as in physically in shape. While he wasn’t wrong, anfòm can mean to be physically in shape, it’s used colloquially as a way of asking how someone’s doing:

        Anfòm? [ Everything’s good?]

        Anfòm. [Everything’s good!]

As friends started asking: Anfòm? He repeatedly replied (having not yet set an exercise routine): Non, m pa anfòm. What             he meant was that he was out of shape; what they heard was that no, everything was not okay. We can only imagine that           his Haitian friends were increasingly concerned over the way he was adapting to life in Haiti…

There’s no way to learn a new language without experiencing at least a few blunders, the best thing we can do is laugh and then learn from them. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and give something a try; if you wait until you can say something perfectly, chances are your opportunity to say anything at all has probably passed.

Do you have any language bloopers to share?

by Erin Nguyen on March 12, 2015

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