Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Liberian English

I’ve been in a lot of African countries and heard a lot of different accents, but I have never, ever heard anything as incomprehensible as the English spoken here. The driver who greeted me at the airport when I arrived seemed to be speaking in some foreign language, of which a few words resembled English. I thought perhaps he had difficulties with English, and surely other people would speak in a more understandable manner…I was dead wrong.

I’m getting better at understanding it but it is still a struggle with some people. To my ear it sounds like Elmer Fudd speaking Chinese, with a Jamaican accent. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. The words in a sentence seem to blend together, and there doesn’t seem to be any hard consonants like r or t in the dialect.

Here are some samples:

Where’s Oscar = whe-o-sa
How are you today = ha-u-deh
Close the door = clo-do
You want to go to the supermarket? = yu-a-go-sua-maka?

So every day I struggle with trying to understand what people are saying. In the worst cases I’ve given up, and just smile and nod. One of the drivers, Cassel, a dear young guy who drives in the evenings and usually is the one who delivers me to the gym and home after work, has become very friendly and very chatty with me. Honest to god I have not the faintest idea what he is saying. I usually have some clues because the conversations usually revolve around something we’ve seen on the streets as we move through Monvrovia, but the details of what he says escape me completely.

The worst part is, which I found out a couple of days ago, is that the Liberians have trouble understanding me!!! I was absolutely astonished. Here I thought I was speaking so clearly, when I’m in Africa I’m careful to enunciate every word clearly and slow down the cadence of my speech, which has always worked in other countries. Unfortunately it seems that this approach is ineffective here. Apparently I need to start slurring my words and drop the rs and ts. As always in Africa, people are too polite to tell me that they don’t understand what I’m saying. This results in things not getting done that I’ve asked for. It seems people would rather risk not doing their job correctly than tell me they don’t understand what I’m saying.

There’s a whole lot of nodding and smiling going on in Liberia!

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