Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Student Reflection

Sarah stayed with Ndamurani Family for her two week homestay and wrote the following essay about her experience.  Sarah's insightful reflection challenges Western superiority especially in terms of our use of the English language.

I have taken five years of Spanish, yet I can barely count to twenty; so saying that my dedication to learning another language is minimal would be quite the understatement. Coming from living in America all my life where I have taken for granted my ability to communicate with practically everyone, I am just now beginning to understand the value of knowing other languages. For some reason it is so easy for me to expect everyone else to speak my language and that be the end of any communication issue. I am learning through many African literature books that many people of the western world think this way and expect Africans to conform to their ways in all aspects of life including language. In Okot’s Song of Lawino the character Lawino shows how expected English is of an educated person by even referring to the dogs saying, “The dogs of white men are well trained and they understand English!” (p'Bitek, 115) These expectations are causing me to see how self-centered this mindset is. I am realizing that for the most part, although I should certainly not expect them to be, these self-centered expectations are met here in Uganda and should not be taken for granted.

            Knowing only one language myself, I never even considered that people knowing multiple languages might prefer one to another, especially the one they first learned. After several instances with the Ugandan family that I am staying with and from talking about languages in class, I continue to see over and over again how big this preference might be for most people.

When I arrived at the Ugandan household where I would be staying, it was a struggle to get much of a response from anyone. It was difficult to tell whether most of the family members did not speak English or if they were just hesitant in talking with me. It was clear that they were talkative people because of the multiple conversations constantly going on at once in Luganda.
            I quickly learned that if I wanted to have much interaction with anyone, the only way to do that was by repeating words they would say in Luganda. This was my entryway into becoming someone that would at least be acknowledged in conversation by the kids of the family—even if it was only because I was the comic relief. They enjoyed teaching me different phrases and hearing me attempt to pronounce the many words they would give me. This even led them to begin filling me in on what they were talking about in conversations unrelated to my learning Luganda.
After the excitement of me pronouncing words not much better than the 8 month-old baby in the house died down, they reverted back to their normal Luganda conversations that I cannot attempt to be involved in. Now that I felt like we were getting along I did not understand why they would not talk in English so that I could be apart of their conversations. Of course I expected them to speak Luganda when anyone was around that was not fluent in English, but it frustrated me when I knew everyone in the room could speak English well but they would still keep me out of the conversation by speaking Luganda. It was not until in class when we talked about people preferring to speak in their first language that I saw this side in a different light. This moment of realization was later confirmed when one of the boys told me how much he loved speaking in his local language.
In my short time staying with this Ugandan family I began to understand how much they enjoyed speaking Luganda but still did not fully grasp what my attempting to learn a few phrases meant to them. It was not until I learned from a classmate how to say, “can I help?” and “can you teach me how to cook?” in Luganda that I understood how right Craig Storti is when he says, “you don’t have to be fluent for people to appreciate the effort you’re making to talk to them.” (Storti, 103) I had asked many times if I could help do anything around the house in English and the reply was always for me to sit down. When I asked in Luganda, to my surprise, they allowed me to help. In one day I asked these questions to two different people and was successful with both after several days of no success in English. This is when it really became clear to me how important their own language is to this family and what my attempting to learn it meant. It was no coincidence that they were willing to show me how to help them and work with them only after I made the effort to ask in Luganda. It is as if asking in the language they love so much gave my request a whole new meaning.

P'Bitek, Okot. Song of Lawino ; &, Song of Ocol. London: Heinemann, 1984. Print.
Storti, Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures. 2nd ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2001     

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