Tongue tied: experiencing a language barrier in my home country

Happy Tuesday everyone! So I’ve recently been pondering language barriers. As a TCK I’m quite familiar with the challenges that come with being unable to communicate with the people in whose country you live. This tends to be because, at least at the start, we don’t speak very much of each other’s languages and so hand gestures become our friends. As language barriers bar effective communication, integration into a society can become quite difficult. However, I’m used to the type of language barrier where there is a lack of capacity to speak the same language as opposed to a lack of desire to speak the same language. Enter Harare.

Now, Zimbabweans are by and large bilingual. We’ll tend to speak our native language (usually Shona or Ndebele but there are others) and English. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Shona and so there is a sizeable minority of people who are trilingual and speak their native language + Shona + English. English is so widely spoken it is generally the language of business and foreigners will have absolutely no problems getting around. What I have noticed however is that we’re not fans of speaking English with people who can or should be able to speak Shona. I actually heard someone say once what a burden it was to have to speak English all the time. My first language is English, so it’s not quite a sentiment I can echo, however it has become apparent that in order to integrate back into my home country I have to become more than conversationally familiar with Shona and properly familiar with Shona culture. I’d rather not be held at arm’s length indefinitely. This seems to me to be a classic third culture kid woe – how do we manage reintegration into our home country cultures?

One of the things that I have found really tricky is asking questions about things that I don’t understand that fall into the category of things that are deemed basic or self evident. It sometimes looks like I’m just being a smart aleck. My parents are at a point where they sigh at me, look imploringly at the sky and wonder where they went wrong. Furthermore very often people won’t necessarily have the answers to my questions because it’s the culture/language they grew up with so there was never really a need to dissect things. It’s the standard situation of someone having better English grammar than a native speaker because they learnt it as a second language. So how do we find out the information that we need, the answers to our questions when we’re trying to move past the language barrier and learn our home languages/ cultures? Solution: academic articles. Seriously. It’s the best idea ever.

Very often when we move to new countries we read up on them, we try to learn everything about them so that we’re prepared and will not offend. Do that. Additionally look up articles that go into the semantics of the language and analyses the culture. I like academic articles, people explain things and form arguments – give examples and all that good stuff. It’s thorough. It might seem a bit odd to have to work to understand your home country and pervasive culture but it does help deal with disorientation so entirely worth the effort! Also whilst I’d like to take all the credit for my light bulb moment, it’s actually the work of my boyfriend. That’s right he’s getting a shout out.

All year, he’s been trying to encourage me to speak it more to help me get comfortable speaking the language (and by extension navigating daily life) so I don’t have the self conscious pauses at the start of each sentence, where I’m attempting to ensure that any sentence I make is grammatically correct and that all verbs have been perfectly conjugated ensuring that I am not opening my self up to mockery. Zimbabweans can mock. He came across (i.e. went looking for) Zambezia which is the journal on humanities that’s published by the University of Zimbabwe. It is also currently my favourite. He then forwarded me an article called “Terms of address in Shona: a sociolinguistic approach” which walked me through terms of address, answering some questions that had been lingering in the back of my mind and giving me fun facts. I am a very happy camper indeed. There may have been a happy dance involved when I got the article.

In conclusion, going back to our TCK research-y ways is a go.

[Okay, so the boyfriend is now an ex, but he was useful in his time]

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One thought on “Tongue tied: experiencing a language barrier in my home country

  1. Pingback: A quick hello :) | Third Culture Feminist

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