Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Richness of Language

"The richness of every European language is a richness in ability to describe its own culture, represent its own world. When it ventures to do the same for another culture, however, it betrays its limitations, underdevelopment, semantic weakness."
- Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Shadow of the Sun"

At this point I'm about five months (two-thirds) through French language training. It's a lot of fun and we've reached the level where we sit in class and just talk about issues most of the day. The role of religion in wedding ceremonies, abortion, perceptions of race, scientific breakthroughs, free speech, you name it.

I'm learning French, but also about francophone culture. We read opinion articles and listen to news stories and especially recently, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, I feel I'm getting to appreciate the cultural angst, hopes and fears of the French speaking world.

It's difficult to talk about the nuances of immigrant integration in France without using French words and French meanings. I imagine it's even harder to discuss the lasting impact and legacy of colonialism in French Africa in the language of the colonizer.

And this got me to thinking. I'm learning French, which is spoken as a second language by the educated minority in Burundi, but only 8% of Burundians in total speak French. How will I be able to understand what's happening in Burundi if I can't speak Kirundi, the actual language of the country? How will I understand the concepts, ideas, the richness of Burundian culture if I don't even share the Burundian way of speech?

I understand that learning French is better for my career, and that French being the, well, lingua franca in this part of the world is the norm, but it does sometimes make you wonder about how we understand each other as human beings speaking and thinking in different languages.
Well, back to the presentations and and philosophizing in la langue fran├žaise!