NOTE: The following is an April installment of my column for the Capital Journal, the newspaper of my hometown and my former employer. There are a few that ran that month that I haven’t posted but will in the next coming weeks. The column runs bi-weekly as part of the Dakota Voices series on the opinion page.
Ke bua Sesotho hanyenyane fééla.
That is a phrase I utter at least once a day. It literally means, “I speak Sesotho a little only.”
Lesotho’s national language is English, but the most spoken is Sesotho. During training all volunteers are required to learn the language and be able to easily communicated needs and wants before swearing in.
Many Basotho, the people of Lesotho, do speak English but not all. British English is taught starting at grade 4 and continues until the end of high school. Each student must pass English – if a student fails English but passes all other classes he still fails. Many people drop out after primary school, when education is free, or during secondary and high school because of the need to work, care for family or early pregnancy. In my village of 1,000, about a quarter of them speak English.
At school I encourage students to speak English, even outside of class. They often don’t like to oblige. Even my teachers, who speak fairly proficient English, will go back and forth between the two languages in one conversation without noticing the jump. Sometimes it’s just much easier to communicate in your mother tongue.
I understand that.
Most times I prefer to talk to those who speak English because my Sesotho is so limited that I can’t get beyond greetings, the weather and a few actions. With an English speaker, I can have a nice conversation and feel more connected to that person.
When my students and teachers ask me why I do not speak Sesotho, I tell them that it is more important for them to learn English than it is for me to speak Sesotho. Technically, that is true. I’ll never speak Sesotho beyond my service, unless with other former volunteers, but they’ll need English for university and to get a good job.
Still, that is a terrible way to embrace this foreign experience. By learning more Sesotho I can have better conversations with the men and women in my village, therefore, creating better relationships and work opportunities. This experience is once-in-a-lifetime and to not learn the language because it’s easier to speak my own is a waste.
Sesotho is not an easy language; some of the letters make clicking sounds that my native English tongue cannot recreate. Yet I can do more to learn it. I can practice sentence structure and the position of adjectives and pronouns while trading a bit of novel time for Sesotho study. It is difficult, but not nearly as complex as French, which I had to learn during my Niger service.
In my sixth month, I find myself trying more to go beyond hello with the Sesotho speakers. It’s rarely eloquent, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll never be proficient, but to try means something. It shows respect and Basotho are often thrilled when they hear me even utter a few words.
I don’t care if I will never speak Sesotho after 2013, it is important now and, therefore, important overall. Plus, back in the United States, it will make a neat party trick.