If you pride yourself on being able to communicate like I do then of course the fact that English is the only language you speak fluently should not be a problem. I know, I know, what about Patois you say, isn’t that a language and don’t you consider yourself fluent in that as well. Yes, well for those of you on the patois-is-a-language train, of course I consider patois a language and I am very, very fluent in it but that is only useful in Jamaica as I have found in my travels.
In Nigeria I could, with effort, understand something of their pidgin. In Ghana I haven’t found the key as their dialect or patois sounds like a completely different language. But I’m not phased, oh no, not me. I’ve traveled to Spanish speaking countries and have been able to make do with my smattering of Spanish, a guide book and of course English. The influence of the dominant English speaking countries is of such that English is spoken almost everywhere.
In Ghana where people speak any of several languages, English is the language of formal exchange. You will therefore have no trouble with the bureaucracy, at least nothing that is directly related to language, and the same thing applies in commerce as well. At the formal level you can buy and sell with the best of them and that’s usually the Lebanese – no Chinese here in any significant numbers, at least not yet. So why do I get so frustrated sometimes?
Well here is what it is. English is not used very much at the informal level. In the markets and among the people from whom one would seek service, a simple form of English is in use. (Women are the exception; they strike me as having greater command of the English language which usually means higher levels of schooling). In fact there is a form of English for marketing for which the following terms are essential:
How much? Too much. Take x. Please madam, I give you good price. I’ll take it.
All of the above are accompanied by shakes of the head and facial expressions to make the point clearer.
For the service group the English required seem to be an English primarily of commands:
Take out the garbage! Do the wash! Are you finished? Not that way! Let me show you. Do you understand? Are you sure? You did well.
Either way the level of English required is not too complex and sometimes I fear I will lose my command of the language. Still, some of my exchanges are fraught with problems. Service level Ghanaians will never say “I don’t understand”, they nod and say “yes madam”, so if you are like me you rattle off a string of instructions and only realize you haven’t communicated when you see that the wrong thing has been done. What the nodding and yes mamdam-ing all mean is I don’t understand every word you have said but the few words I did get make sense to me. In other words what I heard and understood is what I will do for you. Picture this:
I have hired a gardener. I ask all the relevant questions beforehand, I fact I use an interpreter and confirm the following – this person is experienced, has worked as a gardener and knows all that I would like to have done in my yard.
“Don’t worry Madam; everything will be done as you wish.”
First day the gardener comes to work and I show him what I want done. He goes off and works for two hours (it’s a day’s work) and comes back to say “I’m finished madam.”
“Let me see,”’ I say. Well he has bushed out the yard and piles of bush are everywhere. The drive and walk ways are littered with grass and the back yard is one big mess.
“Oh!” I say “You are not finished at all; you need the broom and rake.” I bring him the broom and rake and show him how to rake up the yard. I look outside the gate and the verge has not been touched. “You haven’t done outside.” I say.
“No madam,” he replies.
“You’ll do it before you go?” I ask.
Half an hour later he’s finished.
“Already?” I say.
I go to see. Not much else has been done. He has swept part of the drive way and left the other part.
“No, no. You are not finished yet,” I say.
“I have to go now he says.”
It turns out he has another job and he really has to go. I tell him he has not finished he has only stopped working.
“Come back tomorrow,’ I say. “Finish the job and I will pay you then.”
His face drops and I know he wants to be paid. I get into my best training the help voice and launch off with a lecture about work not being just about money but also about giving satisfaction.
“Both of us must be satisfied before a job is considered complete…,” I am saying when I notice the glaze in his eyes.
“Damn!” I say to myself as I stop in mid-sentence.
I realize then that he hasn’t understood a word beyond the fact that he’s not going to be paid today. I will need to learn patience if this is going to work and most definitely a simpler form of English.
But a simpler form of English is not always the solution. I’m in the market shopping for foodstuff when I see green bananas! It’s a first for me so I go over to check it out. The market woman does not speak any English but again, no problem. In the market one can point and use fingers and nod or shake one’s head enthusiastically or morosely as the situation requires.
I gather from gestures that she is selling by the bunch. I only want one hand. I gesture using my finger and one hand but I am not communicating. I try to show her a hand of bananas using a sawing motion but she looks puzzled so I say again using my finger and a hand that I only want one hand, not a whole bunch. Well, she looks at my finger, makes a comment that is obviously funny and the whole section erupts in loud, raucous laughter. I laugh with them assuming the idea of one hand of banana is really ridiculous to people used to selling whole bunches until I suddenly realize that she had assumed that I wanted one finger of banana and that her comment could only have been of a particularly risqué nature.
Well now, how very like a Coronation Market woman! You know the type?: quick tongue, able to make a bawdy comment out of almost any situation? One of those. I had to chuckle to myself, despite very strong feelings of disappointment that I did not get my bananas. It will be a long time working out a way to buy a bunch of bananas in the market using a combination of English and gestures.
So much for communicating in English.