Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Village Voice

As you may or may have not noticed by reading through my blogs, my English language skills are slowly deteriorating. A fortunate part of being in Southern Africa is that I do speak a good deal of English on a daily basis, the downside is the ominous creep of “village voice.” I first noticed the existence of it on our first week in country. Most of the current volunteers spoke in this funny, slow way when they spoke to a Motswana. Volunteers in my group talked amongst ourselves and guessed whether we would get those same accents.

What is village voice? Village voice is a way of speaking slowly with simple words and with a bit of an accent so that people here can understand you. A lot of people here have trouble understanding the American accent, especially when I speak quickly. Batswana will tell me that my voice is high pitched and sounds “nasal” frequently. In fact, I once had a guy approach me to tell me he learned the secret to speaking English “like a white man.” I asked him what that secret was and he quickly pinched his nose and started to make noises like the teacher from Charlie Brown. We both had a good laugh and the man walked on.

For Americans, accents usually are not a problem. We are used to hearing English spoken with some form of an accent and in big cities you can meet people from all over the world and hear many different accents in any given day. In Botswana, this is not the case. Most of the people here understand and speak at least a little English, but they typically learn British English and it was most likely a second or third language for their teacher.

Writing is a poor format to try to describe speech, but take for example a problem I ran into yesterday. One of the women in the office named Vee was going around shutting off lights and preparing to lock up for the night. She came to where I sit and tried to get the blinds to go down. She pulled on one cord and one side of the blinds would fall. Then she pulled the blinds back up and tried a different cord. The other side of the blinds fell. Then she pulled them up again and restarted the whole process. After watching this for several seconds, I spoke up to tell her how to do it.

Here is what I said first in American English:

“No, Vee, you can’t just pull on one cord. You need to grab all of the cords at the same time. Then you pull down and to the left to release the catch and then while bringing the strings back to the middle, gently let down the blinds. It is not too difficult.”

Vee gave me a large smile and nodded, which I knew meant she had no clue what I just said and then she went right back to her original routine.

Then I thought about it a little and translated what I wanted to tell her into “village voice.” It went something like this (in my funny accent):

“Okay, Vee. Take this string. Now, take this one too. And now grab that one. Take all of them and pull to that side (the left). Now let them down slow slow.”

After that second set of instructions, the blinds went down nice and slow and were even. She laughed and looked at me like I had revealed some great mystery. Village Voice will undoubtedly be the death of my English skills but it sure does come in handy when you need to communicate.