Ahhhhnnnhhhaaa: The Art of Communicating in a Language You Don’t Speak

Burkina has got to be one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Now of course I have no basis for this conjecture but considering that there are 69 languages spoken in a country about the size of Colorado it has to be up there on the list.

Though French is the official language spoken in Burkina, it is not unheard of to find a plethora of people in a village who barely know their Bonjours from their Bonsoires.

In an attempt to mitigate faux pas and mishaps the Peace Corps gives its volunteers a minimal amount of instruction in the first and second most spoken, non-french, languages in the country- Moore and Jula.

But those two, of course, only account for a small portion of the languages spoken in the country, so there is bound to be some situations where a volunteer finds themselves up a creek without the words to tell the person on the shore line that they don’t have a paddle.

Thus, after being armed with French and a smattering of the regions most spoken language a volunteer, like myself, can find themselves dropped off in village without the ability to say “hello” in the villages “super local language.” (Take note: this is a common happening in the South West and Come regions of Burkina Faso, where Jula is the most common local language but is not tied to a specific ethnic group).

What’s a volunteer to do? Easy, one simply must master the art of communication in the following ways:

Lesson 1. It’s imperative to learn the sounds/ words/ gesture for “yes” and “no.”
Sometimes a simple “ahhhnnhhhaaa” or “ahn-ahn” will do, like in the case of the languages spoken in villages some 2 hours south of Bobo.

Gestures can include, but are not limited to; head bobbing, head shaking, wave of a finger, or doing an arm movement similar to that of a chicken flapping its wings in order to say that, “all is well.”

This type of communication is a major part of any language, so it will be assumed that you’re a good communicator if you use them correctly.

Lesson 2. Learn to say hello.
Now in some languages this can get a bit complicated. Where as in English and French sometimes a simple “hello,” or “salute,” will suffice, there are some languages that require a specific greeting for the different times of day. Try learning the greetings from a local friend, tutor, or by just listening to the people around you. The latter can make it hard to grasp the correct pronunciation or exact meaning but I find just mumbling the general tone and inflection can help you muddle through the greeting without your incomprehension being discovered right away.

Lesson 3. Laugh when others laugh and mimic sounds of disbelief.
Let’s be real, there are gunna be times when you will have no clue hits happening/ being said around you or maybe you did for a bit but then the person talking switched languages mid-story, and now you’re lost when the speaker, and the people around you, suddenly laugh or make some sounds that clearly communicate a meaning that you aren’t quite aware of yet. (Note that these sounds can include gasping in disbelief, sharp exhales that create a high pitched “huh” or “ha” sound to express shock, or a sucking sound done with the tongue and lips to express disapproval.)

Copying a laugh or a sound that others are making around you are a sure fire way of tricking them into believing that you know exactly what’s being said at all times.

Lesson 4. Shrugging is universal.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to trick people into thinking you speak the language with a simple yes, no, and hello. But when you start to get in too deep into a conversation you don’t understand, a smile and a shrug is usually enough to let people know you have no idea what’s happening.

Chances are this type of situation will lead to the discovery of your ignorance and the locals will be honor bound to laugh at you, this of course means you’re going to have to….

Lesson 5. Learn to laugh at yourself and the absurdity of your situation.

There are few experiences more unique than being in the Peace Corps. We are able to experience a plethora of highs and lows, we find ourselves in the most impossible situations, and we are often required to navigate our environment with the dullest of tool, until we are able to sharpen them. Even then, there will always be something new thrown at us that will catch us off guard, and require us to adapt.

However, with our lessons in communication, and a good sense of humor, we can navigate our way through any communicative situation, and fake it till we make it.

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