Saturday, January 28, 2012

Learning Bambara

My host father says that Bambara is "une langue pauvre" (an
insufficient or incomplete language) because it is lacking words to
describe many things and therefore must adopt words from French. My
Bambara tutor, an elementary school teacher who teaches classes on
Bambara as a national language, says that Bambara is "une langue riche
en emprunts," meaning that the from his perspective the language is
enriched by virtue of the words it adopts from elsewhere. At the same
time he recognizes that there are many old Bambara wors which are
being lost as they are replaced by easier or more relevant foreign

I personally find it difficult to formulate many of my thoughts in
Bambara since many verbs have specific structures, the particularity
of which I am not used to in learning other languages such as French
and Spanish. In order for my thoughts to be understood it is not
sufficient for me to know what verb to use since without knowing the
exact semantics it is impossible to understand me. Many words sound
similar and even the same word with the same pronunciation can have a
handful of different meanings depending on context/structure. I find
myself sometimes at a complete loss to explain what I want to say
(especially the idea I am trying to express is abstract) and am forced
to go back and reformulate my thought from the beginning. However even
he will often ask me to repeat what I want to say so many times that I
question my abilities in French or my capacity to communicate anything
at all.

I have noticed that this happens most often with complex ideas I have
formulated in my mind in another language (French, English) using the
conditional tense. Issues of vocabulary are usually resolved easily,
but conditionality poses problems. I have the most success when I
drastically reduce what I consider to be the completeness of my
thought to the point that the rough idea is communicated but it is up
to the listener to determine the meaning based on the context of the
conversation. One of my thoughts is that many people on my site do not
"live" in a space that is conditional, but which is instead governed
by routine, predictability, and a certain fatalism. "What if he
doesn't come to dinner?" is a question never asked because there is
always food put aside for the latecomer if he does indeed arrive and
if he doesn't then someone else will eat the food. "What if I could
make a greater profit by buying cheaper inputs?" is not often
expressed verbally because few people understand basic economics well
and besides product availability is so limited that prices are most
often static. Malians depend on being able to travel anywhere in the
country and almost exactly the same amount for basic needs such as
bread, oil, eggs, sugar, and tea. The availability of seasonal and
regional products such as fruits and vegetables means that those
prices fluctuate much more.

Being understood is also not aided by the low level of education most
Malians have received. Many are illiterate and have little experience
learning foreign languages outside of brute memorization, so it can be
a struggle getting them to take my perspective as a language learner.
I try to explain that I do speak Bambara even if their accents are
difficult for me to understand. Also many people I work with and
encounter in my daily life around town speak very fast and very

There are significant variations in the pronunciation of words from
region to region within the same language. Yesterday for example my
tutor was speaking about "kado jƐmƐna," (Dogon country) the meaning of
which I could have figured out in the context except that I was taught
that the Bambara word for "country" was pronounced "jamana." When I
asked him to repeat the word several times he would alternate between
what I consider to be an "a" sound and an "e" or Bambara "Ɛ." Because
of such slight differences in pronunciation of fhe same words by the
same speaker I need to have a high sensitivity to the subtilities of
pronunciation. However in this particular case I was overly sensitive
while listening to my tutor today and I incorrectly assumed that
"jƐmƐna" was a word I was unfamiliar with when in fact it was a
variation in pronunciation of one I already knew.

The good thing is that despite the frustrations I love the challenge
of learning a new language!