An elderly lady waited anxiously in the queue for passport control at Heathrow. I had seen her on my flight from Abuja in Nigeria. She was travelling alone. I approached her with a smile and said “Sannu da zuwa,” (welcome from your travels) in Hausa. She smiled and said in English, “You too.” A conversation started, and I was glad that I had learnt a few words of Hausa.
“Hello” and “Bye-bye” are two of the first words we teach our kids and the first words we learn in a new language. I expect you know “Hello” in at least four languages. Test yourself now. Did you get Bonjour, Czesc, Ni haw, Merhaba, Ciao, Jambo? Saying “Hello” is important to us humans. We can spend a very long time doing it. On that visit to Nigeria, I experienced endless hugs: ”How are you? How’s your family? How’s your house? How’s your work? How was your journey?” There was no pause to wait for an answer between the questions. Every time I thought it was time to pull away, I was drawn back in.
All humans use language; it is an innate skill that we are born with, a gift from Allah (SWT) that makes us what we are. Allah (SWT) tells us in the Qur’an, in Al-Baqarah:37, that ”Adam received from his Lord words.” Just after eating from the tree, humans received language, along with the choice of free will. It indicates a high level of thought, and cleverness leads to mischief, as mothers of precocious children will know.
Some thoughts are animalistic, the feeling of hunger or fear for example. But higher level thoughts require language, an inner discussion that is carried out in words. Some scholars have suggested that this means that language controls how we understand the world. For example, in English we have no word for “geragai”, the Malay word for ”a hook to catch crocodiles” because we don’t usually hunt crocodiles, with or without a hook. So languages represent different ways of seeing the world – all the more reason to learn other languages.
Much of communication is about ritual and social ranking. Our own ideas about status decide how we feel about different accents and languages. Which accent do you prefer: Birmingham, Lagos, Glasgow, Boston? The companies that set up call centres choose their locations and therefore locally hired employees, based on our reactions to accents. During the first phone call home I made after starting a degree at a prestigious university, my mum asked ”Why are you talking like that?”. Without realising it, I had adopted the accent of those around me, hoping to fit in.
Language is part of our culture – that is our idea so far. So we can see how various cultures are valued or undervalued in our society. It is considered that learning a modern foreign language or classical Greek or Latin is academic. Whereas a group of languages are separated off and often called “community languages” or “foreign languages,” including Urdu, Arabic and Somali. Studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is something that is expected of all new arrivals in the UK, but no kudos is given to those who are attempting something every bit as hard as learning ancient Hebrew.
It’s who we are
When others try to speak our language, we are more drawn to them. We understand that they value our culture and recognise who we are. I left secondary school with a grade F in Urdu more than 15 years ago and have not spoken the language since, even when I lived in Pakistan. But when I started teaching a group of Pakistani women, one said to the others “She’s one of us,” because I had tried to communicate with them in their mother tongue. This shows how valued people can feel when you try to speak their language. It is always recommended that da’wah is done in a people’s native tongue for this reason.
It’s what’s important to us
Language reflects our lifestyle and what we consider important. Words like ‘software, email, texting’ would not exist without the technological changes that have taken place in the last 20 years. Languages offer an insight into the cultures of the speakers. The Meaning of Tinga by Adam Jacot da Boinod wallows in the weirdness of words from other cultures. Here are some telling morsels:
Important religious ideas have their own words. The Inuit word “tunillattukkuuq,” meaning “to eat at a cemetery” shows cultural ideas about death. “Thondrol” is Dzongkha (Bhutan) for “the removal of sins by the contemplation of a large religious picture.”
Some words show how things are perceived. The Zulu word for mobile phone “khali khukweni” literally means “to make a noise in a pocket.” There are numerous words reflecting differences in lifestyle: “Honuhonu” is Hawaiian for “to swim with the hands only.” “Tallabe” is the Zarma (Nigeria) word meaning ”to carry things on your head without holding on to them. “Gagrom“ means ”to search for things below the water by trampling” in the Boro language of India. These words may not seem that useful to English speakers in the contexts of Western lifestyles, yet other themes in Jacot da Boinod’s book seem universal.
Here are some words I think we could do with importing into English:
Umudrovat se (Czech) to philosophise oneself into the madhouse.
Potto (Japanese) to be so distracted or preoccupied that you don’t notice what is happening right in front of you.
Wasoso (Hausa) to scramble for something that has been thrown out.
Presezny (Czech) to be stiff from sitting in the same position for too long.
Languages borrow words all the time. This shows that language is the servant of communicative need. We shape it according to what we need to say. In English, we do not have one word meaning ”to scramble for something that has been thrown out,” but who has not dug around in the bin for the teaspoon that accidentally got chucked in? We can understand ideas even if we do not have a word for them. Language does not control the limits of our thoughts, but the more language we have available to us, the better we can express ourselves and reach out to others. Learning a new language therefore can expand our minds and tighten the bonds of kinship.
Rachel Twort is a teacher and writer based in the UK.