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When French Isn't Always What You Expect

One of the adjustments new arrivals face is that even though they've had a year of immersion French language study, many still struggle to understand French when they arrive in Niger.  There are several reasons for this.

First, a year of French gives you a good solid foundation, but it isn't enough for you to become fluent.  French is a fairly difficult language to learn.

Secondly, just like English spoken around the world, there are many different French accents.  So if you studied in Paris and got used to a Parisian accent, the West African accent might be difficult to understand just as an American might have a difficult time understanding the accent of an Australian.  It's the same language and the same sentence structure, but the accent is very different.

Language study back in the day.  Notice the box of Kleenex....probably for all the tears I cried during language study! :) 
Thirdly, and perhaps the one that takes the longest to figure out, is that words and phrases can have a totally different meaning here than they did in France or in Quebec.  It's much like soft drinks are called "soda" in one part of the USA and "pop" in another.  Or a "sweater" in the US is a "cardigan" in Britain.  Many French words and phrases here have been adapted from idioms or phrases that are used in local languages so Nigerien French takes on its own beautiful flavor.  Let me give some examples.

In France "bon soir" is used only in the evening; here in Niger it is used any time after noon.

The word "preparer" in French is a verb meaning "to prepare" and is always followed by an object.  Thus you always prepare something.  But here in Niger, in addition to that, "preparer" can be used simply to mean "to cook" and the object (food or a meal) is understood.  So it's perfectly acceptable to ask, "Who is preparing tonight?"  

Another common phrase used differently in Niger is "la descente".  As you can guess from its similarity to English, it means to go down an incline.  But here in Niger, in addition to that meaning, it also means to get off work.

And a final example, is that greetings in Niger, in any language, are extremely important.   A phrase that has entered French directly from Songhai/Zarma is "Et les deux jours?"  That would be, "And the two days?" which means, "How's it been since I last saw you?"  If you said "Et les deux jours?" to somebody from France or Quebec they wouldn't have a clue what you mean!

One of John's many hats that he wears is that of Vernacular Language Coach.  He is available to help missionaries get set up with a teacher to learn local languages.  He also can encourage them when they feel that they are stuck or have hit a wall and give them some practical ideas for moving on.  Even though his main purpose is to help those learning local languages, he also gives a lot of help and encouragement to those who are still working to become more and more fluent in French.  Gaining fluency in French can be a real challenge, but learning the local variances of French can help missionaries become more comfortable in the culture and establish relationships that may lead to sharing Jesus with those who are living and dying without having heard the Good News.


Deb said…
Nancy, you give me a giggle and encouragement each time I read your blog. Thanks for sharing your life and love of Niger.
Anonymous said…
In Fulfulde you ask for the road when you are ready to leave. "On demand la route." Can you imagine what a Francophone thinks when you ask for the road? I had my box of kleenex in France! And it took a good year after language study to be able to communicate in French. To be able to teach and minister took a lot longer!

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