Context Is Everything: Learning Haitian Creole As A Couple
Learning a new language is humbling. Learning a new language as a couple, is doubly so. Yes, you have someone to practice with, a fellow sufferer through grammar books, and a buddy to help you get back on your feet after a verbal face plant. But for me, a plodding language perfectionist, it can be uniquely frustrating when Rebecca's prodigious memory seems to churn out vocabulary while I'm still focused on properly conjugating "the."
Working in the local language is a priority for Mennonite Central Committee, and we started Haitian Creole tutoring bright and early on our first day here. Haitian Creole emerged on the island during French colonialism, a time when hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly brought from West and Central Africa as slaves to support brutally repressive plantation agriculture. The language that developed drew heavily from the diverse African, Indigenous (Taino), and European languages (particularly Norman French) being spoken in the colony. While Haitian Creole shares significant French vocabulary (specifically from French dialects of the 17th century), it is a unique language with its own grammar, vocabulary, speech patterns, internal dialects, literature, and culture. French is also one of the Haiti's official languages, but the vast majority of the population, especially those less well off, speak only Haitian Creole. Language choice in Haiti carries weight. The choice of whether to speak Creole or French, can be a decision of who to include in the conversation.
Knowing that our office would be run in Haitian Creole, we started studying as soon as we found out we were moving to Haiti: we made piles of flash cards which we hauled along with us on trips and car rides; we listened to audio lessons through Pimsleur on the way to and from work together; we worked our way through a (very) old Creole grammar book; and practiced reading out loud, with what can only have been questionable pronunciation.
Needless to say, tutoring is a significant step up from home-study with your spouse! Despite two months of our tutor's best attempts, we continue to make some memorable mix-ups:
- As we were getting to know our host family, we asked the grandfather of the house, the head baptist preacher, "Are you going to preach in church tomorrow?" Or at least we thought that is what we asked. He looked confused and slightly perturbed, saying vehemently "Absolutely not! Why would you ask that?" Turns out we had asked the pastor if he planned to sin in church tomorrow..."preach" and "sin" are words only a letter apart.
- As we practiced our morning greetings, working to honor the Haitian tradition of asking after family members, Rebecca inadvertently used the wrong form of the word "woman," and cheerily asked our tutor how his mistress was doing this morning, rather than his wife. Smiling, he shook his head and repeated his mantra, "Creole is not as simple as it seems...context is everything."
Paul Shetler Fast was born in Tanzania, grew up in Goshen, Indiana, and most recently called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. Paul's professional degrees are in International Development and Public Health. He has been in the shared role of Representative for MCC Haiti, along with his wife Rebecca, since April 2016. In his free time, Paul cooks and photographs for the couples' food blog.