Language lessons in humility


If you’ve ever wanted a practice in humility, try learning another language. Language blunders provide ample opportunity for both sublime entertainment and profuse apologies. For example, Ryan and I have been quick to learn that the word meaning “to plan or prepare” sounds very similar to the word used to describe relieving oneself. Thankfully Ryan caught this as he was doing flashcards, before it could be confused mid-sentence.

There are several tricky things about Chichewa that have been hard to nail down. Sentence structure takes so long to think about, that I spent five minutes yesterday attempting to correctly say that the corn was good. I’m sure it makes me sound as intelligent as a toddler, since my language skills resemble theirs.

Every sound makes a difference, in the entire understanding of a word. Becca and I went searching for a clinic a few weeks ago. We drove to a nearby village, and asked for the “chipitala.” Everyone we asked looked confused, until we said “hospital.” We later realized that the correct word is “chipatala.” One little vowel made all the difference.

Little sounds also make a difference in pronoun usage. While we have learned the words for you singular, and you plural, it is the general rule of thumb to always refer to somebody in the plural. For example, “Muli Bwanji” is the common greeting. Which literally means “How are all of you?”

It is considered rude to address someone in the singular.

Of course, as a Westerner I want to know why. I need to understand. I don’t ask anybody, but my mind wanders to think of why we address people in the singular tense in English. I remember conversations between visitors and staff members in Kenya.

As Americans, we are often interested in knowing things about people upon first meeting them. In fact, it’s considered polite to show interest in those you first meet. Of course there are levels of what is considered private and public conversation, but we generally consider ourselves to be open. Where are you from? Are you married? Are you dating anyone? How many children do you have? How old are they? Do you enjoy working here? What is the hardest part? What is the best part? What food do you cook at home?

While all of these questions may seem equal in our minds, some of them come quite loaded in an African context. No question comes innocently, and people often wonder why you want to know what you are asking. If you want to know about if they enjoy work – does it mean that you are going to try and fix whatever problems there may be? Dating relationships are a very private thing, and usually only close friends and family know until the wedding invitation is received – why are you asking about such a private affair?

Graciously, people are kind to us as foreigners, and answer us generally, forgiving our cultural misconceptions.

Back to the plural.

We are eager, often times, to know as many things about a person as we can, in a short period of time. Even in our own culture, some people are more willing to share than others. But really, even if we spend three hours having a heart-to-heart with someone that we just met, we have only known things about this person, not necessarily known the person themselves.

Just as it can be all too easy to know many things about Jesus, without truly knowing Him.

Do we view knowledge about people as a possession, eager to gather all we can and hold it to ourselves? 

Questions are a good way to get to know people, without a doubt.

But perhaps time, offered as a gift over seasons, is a better way. 

Movement from eager prying questions, to slow relationship development, over the course of weeks, months, years.

Maybe referring to people in the plural, seeing Jesus in them, can teach us to refrain from wanting to known everything about them at once. Maybe it can be just a part of freeing us from the desires to one up each other, to hold as much as we can for ourselves, and to move rapidly towards our goals – even if those goals are admirable and good.

This too, is an opportunity for humility – the slow building of relationships with bricks of shared experiences, time, and the willingness to change.

2 thoughts on “Language lessons in humility

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