The Importance of Being bi/tri or multi-lingual while Traveling in Developing Countries

Over the last few months, I have especially thought about the important of being able to speak another language. Growing up, I was privileged, although at that time hating it, to speak and practice my mother tongue and learn English. Growing up, I rejected my minority language [Spanish] to try to fit in but thankfully, I grew out of my childish tendencies. Being in Ethiopia, where I had to learn a new language, I learned just how fucking hard it is to learn a second or third language.

There are many reasons to become bi/tri or multi-lingual:

  1. a person who speaks multiple languages has a different perspective from two or three different cultures which leads to not being restricted to one worldview
  2. Sensitivity and understanding of the mother tongue
  3. Enable comparison and contrasts between cultures and becoming socially aware
  4. Better understanding and appreciating people of other countries, thereby lessening racism, xenophobia, and intolerance
  5. Being able to speak with those who one would normally not be able to
  6. Increase job opportunities

I never understood why English was difficult for those whose language wasn’t primarily English, but I can proudly say that because of Peace Corps Ethiopia, I was forced to become humble about my inability of holding and carrying an in-depth conversation in Amharic. Before arriving in Ethiopia, I had a goal: become fluent in Amharic.
I tried to increase my vocabulary by speaking with my community, I paid a tutor to teach me sentence structures in Amharic and I studied at home but it still wasn’t enough. I became really good at understanding what people said to me and those around me but was unable to respond back to them without using basic phrasing. For some reason, I couldn’t grasp it and the more I tried, the more frustrated I became. But people appreciate the effort of only knowing a few phrases, more than not speaking it at all. I love seeing someone’s face light up in the Kafa Zone (where Chiri is) after speaking to them in Kafinono (local language). And I especially love when people can see the effort I try in speaking, but still manage not to point it out.

letters to zerkyI recently read Letters to Zerky by Bill Raney, a phenomenal book that I read while in country which I strongly recommend, he stated that “the dictionary defines “help” as a transitive verb. Verbs are supposed to do something. They’re supposed to denote action. Why is then that in America we treat help as a noun-as a person, place, or thing? We don’t do help, we give money instead?” In America, people expect others to speak English. They de-test the wetbacks, the immigrants who have left their countries and have came into theirs stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans. Some Americans believe they should go back to their homelands. Some believe that if we throw money at the problem that will be enough. But in developing countries, especially in Honduras and in Ethiopia, people give praise for you speaking their language. When you are learning a language, one never regrets knowing several languages but one can certainly regret not knowing enough. Learning languages is a beautiful thing but it requires patience, time and effort.

There is not a more humbling experience than being in a country where you don’t know the language and you are at the mercy of those who can speak the language you speak. Recently, I was with a group of friends, all who spoke English, but as we were sitting there and they were speaking Amharic, I realized how deeply alone I felt. All humans want to fit in and feel connected, but that’s difficult to do so when your language abilities are limited.

imagesHowever, knowing and being loved in a community doesn’t require fluency in a language. Imme, Aso and I were in the kitchen one day. Imme was roasting my bunna to take home and Aso was preparing butter and I was taking beans from their stocks. I had recently given some of my clothes away and so Asomiro was wearing one of my University of Delaware sweatshirts and he asks me how much it costs. I had to convert it into birr but when I told him the price in birr, he seemed surprise. It was like he was expecting it to be free. I told him nothing was ever free in the States and Imme then suggested that in order to save electricity I should buy a charcoal stove and use that sometimes. This being done in broken Amharic was funny. Language helps to communicate, but sometimes body language and facial expressions are just as important. In the last few days, I sprained my right ankle by stepping the wrong way, which was the same ankle in which I sustained a similar injury about 4 years ago. A complete stranger stopped on the street to help me cross as there was uneven dirt road and helped me up some steps. I was so thankful to her that all I could do was smile as she walked by my side and I limped by.

These people, in this developing country, have shown me such kindness and compassion from complete strangers. And honestly, you will find that kindness and compassion from strangers in any country. While it’s important to speak many languages, it’s more important to go into a country with an open-mind and open-heart mentality because you never really know the ways people can touch you and change you in your soul.


One Comment Add yours

  1. John tierney says:

    You’ve gathered an important truth about life. How many times have I. Seen huge visitors to a country staggering around in English, thinking the know it all—when they sure as hell don’t.
    Wa in Nicaragua two years ago and went down to a wagon near the ferry landing,for my usual, thirty cent cup of coffee. In the morning. A boatload of yunge Germans wandered by.
    Parecene entedades de outra planeta! I exclaimed, forgetting I was a foreigner myself…


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