Seldom have I run across a feeling as perplexing as not knowing what language you just expressed yourself in.
No, I’m not speaking in tongues; though I’m sure the fervently Christian Western Cameroon would love to see me try. I’m instead talking about the three major languages I toggle between while here: Pidgin, English, and French.
I used to be on the opposite side of this conundrum: I was acutely aware at all times of what language I was speaking and suffered through each of them in equal measure. Pidgin gnawed away at my English, my English wiggled its way into my French and my French did nothing but pester my Pidgin by inserting verbs and nouns I only knew in Francophone Cameroon right smack dab in the middle of my Anglophone sentences. The superlative of ‘Unable to stop speaking Panglish/Franglish (Pidign/Francais/English and Francais/English)’ I earned during my training was a joke. While I loved each of the languages like it was my own kid, I was more a nanny to them than a parent. I loved them, but I mostly loved handing them back.
Postmate Kate suffered for a time from the inability to stop speaking Pidgin. I snickered as officials kindly, and often not so kindly, demanded she quit speaking to them in that barbaric tongue. They were educated, they said, or Francophone: speak to them only in grammar English and French. She tried as best she could, but occasionally an ‘ashia’ would slip and then the struggle began anew.
Now it is my turn to be embarrassed by the brain’s inability to sort itself out. My first inkling that perhaps I wasn’t always aware of what was coming out of my mouth began on the first day of training the newest stagiers (trainees) in Bafia, Center Region. The technical trainer for another program was a North West native and as he and I chatted about how I found his homeland he remarked that he really enjoyed my Pidgin. I asked him how he knew I spoke it. Head cocked to the side and bemusement in his eyes he informed me that he knew because we just wrapped up a ten minute conversation in the language.
While I can understand how slipping in and out of Pidgin could happen for me, after all I’ve spent a year now practicing and living in the land of Pidgin, I didn’t realize it could also sneak up on me in French. After school one day I decided to forgo the bar and instead go and greet my host family. It had been a whole year since we’d parted ways and I decided to bridge the gap with broken French and a pineapple I bought at a roadside stand minutes before.
The first few minutes were uncomfortable as I tried to get my legs underneath me. After all, I don’t practice much French at home aside from the times I’ve tried to hold conversations with myself while doing housework, convinced it’ll help keep the language sharp. After a few minutes, though, the conversation flowed much more smoothly. I didn’t have to pause and translate, either for my host mother’s questions nor my own responses. At one point while visiting I got a phone call from another American, I answered in English, told my host mother the reason for the phone call and that I’d be just a moment longer in French, and went back to speaking in English.
At the end of the night I walked home laughing to myself about a joke we had shared, my host family and I. As I told it back to myself aloud it was then I realized that even though I was repeating the joke in English, it had obviously been told to me in French.My host family spoke a little English, but surely not enough to make a clever joke about MTV, right? But then again, I didn’t remember any French words or phrases standing our in the memory of the joke. I couldn’t with confidence say which language parts of our conversations occurred in.
It’s true that I occasionally dream in both Pidgin and French. The kicker is, though, that my Pidgin and French are both just as bad in my dreams as they are in real life. I still have a hard time with my tenses and often create a mélange of language, slipping in substitutes for the words I still don’t know. Many people say that dreams are one of the first signs of fluency. I prefer to think that they are instead a sign of a certain comfort level with the language, even if the proficiency isn’t as high as you’d like it to be. It was a relief to find during my time in Bafia that speaking French wasn’t as halting or stressful as before. Phrases rolled off the tongue, even though I hadn’t spoken them often or at all in the last year.
As comforted as I was to find my French had not evaporated during my time in the Grand West, coming back to Pidgin-speaking Bamenda was an even greater comfort. The ringing of the ‘my baby’ and ‘I love you’s coming from the men I passed on the streets were grating and demeaning, but they were grating and demeaning in a language I was used to. Those people dem done try for hambock me sotey, but I never worry ma’self for those tings. It done felt like home.