Language is a beautiful thing. Each language has it’s own words (duh!), just kidding. Each language has it’s own feeling. Some languages feel soft and gentle, others feel rough, but each language is precious to it’s speakers. It is such a blessing to greet someone in their own language and see their face light up with surprise.
However, the language barrier here has been one of my main challenges as counselling is important for me to be the most effective dietitian that I can be. But I am slowly learning. Unfortunately I’m at that awkward place where I can say enough to kind of get by, but if the patient deviates from my normal plan then I’m clueless!
Me: Sawubona (Hello to one person)
Patient: Yebo, unjani? (Hello/yes, how are you?)
Me: Ngiyaphila. (I am well)
Patient: Ngikhona. (I am fine, directly translated as I am here)
Me: Udla kahle? (Are you eating well?)
Patient: lufeyvdshjfvluwevfcljhdsvljhfvlhsjdfbpyigf;hksdbflhjebfhjdv (I have no idea, but somewhere I pick up something about pain, there’s almost always pain)
Me: Ngifundza ukukhuluma siSwati. Kancane (I am learning to speak siSwati. Little)
Normally the patient will just laugh, but every now and then they will get frustrated (which I can understand). Either that or they aren’t really a patient for me and I have to tell them that I’m not the “dokotela” and that the “dokotela” is on their way.
Fortunately, I do know a little bit more siSwati than what I used above, but pictures do come in handy all the time! I have a pack of food cards that I keep in my bag with me the whole day. At least the language of pictures is universal.
What I always find fascinating though is that certain words that I use all the time, like kancane (“Udla kancane kancane” – “Eat little, little”; “Udla kancane salt” – “Eat little salt”) or Yebo (A simple yes; in response to the original greeting of “Sawubona”; in response to someone knocking on the office door) are starting to become my default response. Michael will ask me if I want some rice and what I want to say is “kancane”.
Every now and then I’ll see an Afrikaans patient and it is so difficult to then speak Afrikaans without throwing in some siSwati. I was chatting to someone about it the other day and I totally agree with what she said. We seem to have a space in our brains for our first language, and sometimes a space for second language, but then after that they all get jumbled up in one space. Well, that’s how it works for me at least. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people who is gifted with languages so separating siSwati and Afrikaans once I’m in siSwati mode is quite a challenge.
I have been laughed at (in a nice way) as visitors walk down the passage after I greet them, I have been video-ed, on a visitors cellphone, while I was speaking siSwati to a patient and I have been given funny looks when I get things wrong (such as asking patients if they are “helping” their food, rather than if they are “finishing” their food – you cannot believe how difficult it was for me to even hear the subtle difference, let alone be able to make the sounds with my English mouth). But the thing that humbles me is when a patient or visitor tells me that my siSwati is good when all I have said to them is “Sawubona” … “Unjani” … “Ngiyaphila” … “Ngifundza ukukhuluma siSwati”.
A greeting and one sentence.
Yet, they think I’m speaking well.
On the other hand I have patients who I ask if they can speak English and they tell me “kancane” (little) and then we go on to have an (almost) fluent consultation in English.
I am not speaking well, they are!