02 March 2011

Language and Communication

One of the biggest things about moving to a foreign country is learning a new language and new way of communicating. I am learning a lot about communication since coming to Uganda. There are subtle, body language things and other, more obvious things. Gestures and words I take for granted in the U.S. I can't use here because people may not understand. For example, I told someone I was feeling wimpy about something but then had to have a 10 minute conversation on what I meant by wimpy. Many people speak English but for most I need to slow down. Sometimes I slow down my rate of speech but forget to simplify my vocabulary a bit. At any rate (no pun intended), I am learning to be patient with myself and my communication skills.

These are some of my favorite communication/language moments:
  • RTC is a very international community. Students come from a number of different countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Sudan, etc. The staff also come from a lot of countries and many of them are from Korea. Last week I was eating lunch with a number of African staff when one of them looked at me and said, "Your English is very good. Are you Korean?" Another lecturer looked at him and said, "English is her native language. She should be telling you if your English is good or not." We all laughed a lot; I am rediscovering that laughter builds relationships and overcomes language barriers. And even though it was funny there is also a certain reality about it because, let's face it, they can't tell the difference between Korean and American and I can't tell the difference between Sudanese and Kenyan (although, I am getting a bit better).
  • As I am learning to speak the local language, Luganda, I am well aware that I sound like a child most of the time. I can greet people and say a few simple phrases, including 'My name is Rachel. I want to learn Luganda' (in Luganda, of course). A few weeks ago a student came in to get his textbooks and he said 'I am here to study English'. I responded with, 'That's great! And, how are you today?'. To which he replied, 'I am here to study English'. I found his response so endearing. I hope the Ugandans find me endearing when I keep saying the same thing over and over again.
  • One of my favorite non-verbal responses here is a simple eyebrow raise to answer 'yes'. It took me a while to figure this out but now I love it. I even find myself using it to answer 'yes'. Much easier than having to speak. Of course, it also means I have to be careful about when I raise my eyebrows so as not to flirt with any men or summon a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) unknowingly.
  • Spelling and letters are different here; many Ugandans think my name is spelled 'Recho'. And when students try to spell their names for me...eek! I am terrible. They say 'a' and I write 'e' or vice versa. I am learning a lot about listening carefully!
It is an adventure to be here in so many ways. But I also find it humbling. Humbling to learn a new language and to unlearn many of my communication habits. Humbling to try to get to know people when you run out of conversation after a few sentences. Humbling to be reminded again that, no, the whole world does not speak English. Humbling to speak and communicate like a child again. I hope and pray I am humble enough to learn the lessons I need to learn while I am here, communication or otherwise.


    1. Rachel, you are awesome! Thanks so much for sharing your story as it moves along. I think the pace of one year is perfect too - and slowing down is so important. Experience the moment and live in it. I will try to not only admire and appreciate your life lessons during your year of finding a good (bigger!) story, but practice my own broader story lesson as well. Keep up the blog - I'm so glad we have this way to connect!

    2. Thanks, Tina! I'm just trying to learn as much as I can while I'm here. So much to learn, see, and do! Thanks for all your support!