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English, French, or Bambara: Which language do we speak today?

English, French, and Bambara

Monica and her Malian friend, Dabel, share some common phrases.

Click here to listen.

You must have the RealPlayer.

Meet Saouty Traore, a computer engineer from the Hippodrome suburb of Bamako who really, really wants to speak English well. Meet me, a world trekker from San Diego who really, really wants to speak French well. What do you get when you put us together? Language lessons!!

Kavitha and I met Saouty when he stopped to pick us up in his air-conditioned car during one of the downpours that come out of nowhere. We were walking back to Dabel's house from our favorite cafe, and weren't sure if we could trust a private car, rather than a taxi. It turns out that Saouty is one of the friendliest Malians we've met so far!

He's been to the United States three times: to New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Also, he's been to Canada, - Montreal to be exact - where they also speak French. Since getting involved in computers, he has started to have more and more business ties with the European Union, and he believes that the ability to speak fluent English is one of the best things for businessmen.

So, for our first lesson, back at the cafe, we exchanged greetings. He said, "Vous pouvez parler en francais, et je vais parler en anglais." (You can speak in French, and I will speak in English.) So our conversation alternated between the two languages, until our heads started to spin. He was confused about a couple of idiomatic expressions in English, like "break a leg" for "good luck." Sometimes, literal translations don't make sense. Can you think of any other expressions you use that would be confusing to a foreigner?

Click image for larger view
Saouty and I learning languages
Later that evening after saying goodbye to Saouty, I asked our friend Dabel to talk in the three languages she knows: English, French, and Bamako, the language most widely spoken here. There are more than 32 official languages in Mali, and the Dogon people, who Kavitha and Abeja will visit, speak 48 different dialects! However, since language is a means to communicate, I find that with merchants or with people in the street, it's the meta-language that really counts. Smiles, gesticulations, and in general a good attitude can help a lot, and then you don't have to worry about technicalities like why "laughter," when you put an "s" in front of it, turns into "slaughter!"

So, in the meantime, a bientot. A la prochaine fois, take care!


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