You Mingle Even If It’s Just to Giggle

How many countries have you been to and know that English is not their first language? 


Well, most of the country I’ve been to is not an English-speaking country, except for the UK. Often it is a second, third or even fourth language like in Timor Leste.

Myself is not a native speaker. English is my second language but like 70% of my countrymen, we speak it like it’s our own and even copy accent even though some have not been to its country of origin.

Language is very important in communication. It’s what get’s you familiar with the culture and get closer to people, to their way of life and often it is also what alienates you (at least in the beginning).

I have very poor abilities to learn a new language, communicating with the locals is one of the kink when in a mission. I don’t have the patience that others have and I don’t have a good ear to listen to the changes in tone and to rolling of the tongue plus a bad case of short-term memory loss — to remember how to say what I just said like when I was learning the Khmer language. In short I am not motivated enough to really focus — shorter than short, I am plain lazy! I envy those friends who are the opposite of me 😀

But believe me when I say I hate to meet brags — those who talks (often in loud voices) in the local language even when in a sports bar with no locals in sight. Expats like doing that to impress, to show off their new local language cred even after work hours and weekend or even when not necessary. Shut up already!

I have a bad case of “Passive Knowledge” language syndrome when all the old languages I learned years ago re-surface to hunt me and mess up my already messed up vocabulary when trying to learn a new language. A passive speaker according to Wikipedia …

“A passive speaker (also referred to as a receptive bilingual or passive bilingual) is someone who has had enough exposure to a language in childhood to have a native-like comprehension of it, but has little or no active command of it.”

Well the exact definition doesn’t apply to me byt I understand more that I can speak, I can read and understand documents and even participate in multi-lingual meetings but only respond in English and I survived most of the time. Somehow it was good even to just eave drop (ssshhh don’t tell my staff). That’s the good side but the bad side is that I could not carry longer conversations because I lose the vocabulary to go on and I always have sentence destruction (my grammar teacher will scold me if she finds out) like in the case of French and Khmer where the subject is place at the end of the sentence as against to the beginning as taught by my teacher in grade school.

Having said that, I had a lot of  “foot in the mouth” situation when trying to make conversation, when I used another country’s language in giving instructions and getting pissed because they don’t understand me … only to realize, often much later that it was my fault oppsss!  🙂

Me learning my way in Dili and taking the taxi for the first few weeks

Driver: Boa tarde (good afternoon)

D: Boa tarde (that was easy learned that the first day!)

Driver: Ba ne’ebe? (where are you going?)

D: Hau nia ba supermercado Kmanek (I am going to the supermarket Kmanek)

Driver confused because I was too polite and giving complete sentences as an answer ( a sign that I was a newbie) plus not everybody knows Kmanek – it’s a shop frequented by foreigners, it carries most of what we missed from home.

Driver went and when he turned left instead of going straight, I got all scared and shouted with hand gestures Ba throng, throng! and the driver kept turning left and more confused, and I was pissed because he couldn’t understand my Tetum (or so I thought). M bad!

I was saying to him — Ba (go) throng (straight but in Khmer language – which I last used 5 years before I worked in Timor) and obviously he didn’t understand because I should have said “lo’os”.  I ended up stopping the taxi, paying and walking back to the shop and do my grocery shopping mumbling what I said wrong. Actually, I was ready for such situation but I forgot I have my handy guide because I though I can do it — pretentious of me ha ha ha. 

Sometimes language alienate people — you end up talking to the same group of people when you’re in a diverse crowd and likewise people avoid you because they are afraid to make a mistake talking to you. You think they are snubbing you because they don’t talk to you and you end up not meeting new people. Smiling only to people doesn’t count 🙂 as conversation ha! ha!

Or the awkward moment when the conversation goes beyond pleasantries and very shallow conversation, suddenly you get lost in translation (and fake a headache or to see someone you know to get away).  In the end, you tend to gravitate to the most familiar, to either your own countrymen so you can speak your own language or to other English speakers even if you don’t have anything in common with them except you understand what they are saying.

But it should not be the case, there are many ways to communicate and sometimes the little you know can encourage more locals to help you — which was the case with my staff and in return I encourage them with the language I know.

Our lives are ruled by interaction — language or not, we communicate in many ways. There are downside to not knowing the language of the country you’re in, of not speaking to them as fluent as others can but there are many way to counter that – – to socialize, interact and enjoy the company of other people and often the language barrier is broken down with common interest of getting to know each other, and that is more than enough and eventually you learn along the way.

Lost In Translation

Also …


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