Understanding Among Africans
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There is something depressing in watching two Africans trying to communicate by gestures, when one, a Rwandan – with Kinyargwanda as his mother tongue – has made the effort of assimilating Swahili and French, and the other, a Nigerian, is capable of using, besides the Agatu of his native village, three languages as important as Hausa, Arabic and English. The total of languages spoken by the two of them amounts to seven, and they have devoted many hours for many years to drilling themselves in the correct handling of difficult rules of grammar and inconsistent vocabularies. Yet they stand together as though separated by an insuperable barrier.
At a time when there is so much talk of international co-operation, contacts among peoples and intercultural communication, would this problem of mutual understanding not deserve a thorough analysis?
Another example comes to mind. Some time ago, a seminar was organized in Switzerland for radio people from a number of countries. Before the first session, everybody noticed the only two African members spontaneously walk up to one another. It was their first stay in Europe. Alas, the expression of interested expectation that lit up their faces when they first saw each other from a distance was soon replaced by one of deep disappointment when they realized that they could not understand each other. One had come from Tanzania, the other from Gabon. These two men, who were drawn to one another by so many common realities – same black skin among a majority of white people, many aspects of cultural background, life on the same continent, solidarity of ex-subjects of colonialism – could relate as little effectively as if they suffered from a brain handicap.
For two weeks they lived together without ever being able to communicate directly. They always needed a white man fluent in both English and French to act as an interpreter. Do you think they told each other the same things as if they had been able to talk alone, face to face? To imagine that, you’d have to know very little about human psychology. Nevertheless both belonged to an intellectual elite. How much time had they not spent to learn the language of their former colonizers?
This experience is typical of Africa’s language tragedy. Schoolchildren in Black Africa first learn to read and write in their local language, or in a widespread African language, or in the language of the former colonial power, according to where they live. But whatever the first stage, the second one, for those who are lucky enough to go on studying, always consists on devoting long hours for many years to a written language full of difficulties, whether they be French subjunctives, Portuguese irregular verbs or the enormous stock of the English vocabulary, which, because the language has tapped both Germanic and Romance sources, is almost double that of an average tongue.
Whatever the language taught in school, since it is not the same one everywhere, this huge investment of time and effort in the conquest of linguistic elements unrelated to African traditions does not solve the problem of direct communication.
Is there a chance that all African countries might agree to teach the same language, either English or French, everywhere? It is highly unlikely, nor is it advisable. Cultural pressures are already enough of an alienating factor. To give them a monopoly would be intolerable.
Should one envisage the adoption of a great non-European language, such as Arabic, Swahili or Hausa? For many Africans, the difficulties would not be smaller and the drawback of unduly favoring one culture over the others would not be avoided.
Would perhaps the solution to the problem lie in devising a pan-African conventional tongue, along the lines of what has been done in New Guinea? Difficulties are already so numerous when one endeavors to create a national intertribal language that they would almost surpass human capabilities if the challenge came from a whole continent with all kinds of extremely different linguistic structures.
On what basis should the vocabulary be selected? How could one conceive a grammar in such a way that all users might feel at ease? Such an undertaking, while not impossible – experience shows that planned languages are really capable of living – would be an extremely slow and painstaking task if it were to be carried out effectively with due regard to the requirements of ethnic and cultural equality. The following examples show how varied the African linguistic reality is. Although they are limited to a small sample of vocabulary and to one single point of grammar – the plural – they will give the reader some idea of Africa’s language diversity.
Considering the wide variety which appears at all levels of language, it would be impossible to find a common denominator even in the limited field of the chief African languages. Decades would be needed to work out a satisfactory project, and two or three generations would be necessary to give it life.
Towards a realistic solution
The most satisfactory solution to the problem appears to consist of a bi-, tri- or quadrilingualism acquired by successive stages according to the following scheme:
1. first two educational grades: learning to read and write in the local dialect or in the regional or national African language;
2. third and fourth grades: continued study of the first African language, beginning study of the international language Esperanto, the study of which will be maintained all through the following grades;
3. secondary school: for the students who so desire, or according to national requirement, study of one or two languages such as Swahili, English, French, Arabic or others, not as a means of communication (Esperanto will serve that purpose), but in order to broaden the cultural outlook of the youth.
This formula presents several advantages. Pedagogically, it is realistic, as will be explained in the following pages. It solves easily the communication problem among African peoples. It confers the role of inter-African tongue to a language devoid of any colonial, neocolonial, ideological or religious links. It fully respects cultural values at their different levels. It entails no loss of identity, either for linguistic reasons (Esperanto is not, structurally, an Indo-European language; its flexibility and inter-ethnic tradition enable it to adapt to every mentality), or for cultural ones (literary life in Esperanto is made up of contributions from the most varied sources: e.g. Japanese and Hungarian writers have played an important role in its development).
The system advocated above is based on three facts, which, although objectively verifiable, are usually unknown or misinterpreted. The words objectively verifiable must be stressed, because in discussions on these questions it is not infrequent to find individuals of good will who nevertheless jump to conclusions without having carefully considered the facts. This attitude s understandable. It involves all the same a serious lack of respect for the populations and the individuals whom babelism reduces to an inferior status, and who deserve more than a superficial judgment.
The facts in question are the following:
a. Because of its structure, Esperanto leads more deeply and more rapidly than any other language to the perception of grammatical and semantic relationships, which is the basis of any language learning. This is the reason why it allows considerable economy of time in the later assimilation of foreign tongues.
b. The time required to assimilate a language and the ease with which it can be used depend on various objective features. The more a language is handled with ease, the less foreign it is felt to be.
c. Esperanto is a living language, both rich and expressive, with a long tradition – more than a century – of intercultural and interethnic communication.
Pedagogical advantages of Esperanto
Leaving aside the problem of communication in limited areas, where bilingualism or trilingualism in local languages is quite frequent, a large number of Africans will have to learn a language other than their own if they want to take part in communication at an interregional or pan-African level. The adoption of an African language would not dispose of the pedagogical problems. If Swahili was chosen, for instance, Africans speaking a Sudanese language or a Hottentot dialect would still have to assimilate the extremely different structures of a Bantu language, and the distance between those languages is greater than between Portuguese and Bengali. The same pedagogical problem arises if the language to be learned is chosen outside Black Africa (English, French, Arabic...)
Learning a foreign tongue always involves two operations: decoding and recoding. Apart from exclamations such as hm! oops! ha!, language necessarily implies an analysis of a series of relationships. Obviously, even an expression of emotional life such as "I love you" must include linguistic means of distinguishing the subject from the object. Otherwise, it might mean ‘You love me’, which is, of course, completely different.
What is called here ‘decoding’ consists in making explicit this unconscious analysis. It is a crucial phase, and if a third language is learned more easily than a second one, it is because this stage has already been dealt with to a large extent.
Esperanto facilitates the decoding process because it consists exclusively of invariable units, so that the grammatical and semantic analysis of words and sentences is both consistent and transparent.
For instance, once you have learned that the past tense of a verb is expressed by the ending –is, you can yourself - consistently – form the past tense of any verb: mi estis ‘I was’, Patro faris ‘Father did’, vi iris ‘you went’. Moreover, every time you meet a word with the –is ending, you know – transparency – that it is a verb in the past tense. Such consistency and transparency pervade the whole language. Once you have assimilated the endings and particles, you can at first glance, even without knowing the meaning of a single word, make out the grammatical analysis of a sentence.
Esperanto also makes semantic analysis explicit, i.e. it analyzes complex concepts. Let us consider for example the Esperanto equivalent of incurable. It consists of six units. The central element is san ‘healthy’. Ig means ‘make’, ‘render such or such’, so that sanig means ‘to make healthy’. Since re shows repetition or returning, resanig means ‘make healthy again’, ‘restoring health’ and thus ‘to heal’. If you add ebl, which conveys the idea of possibility, you get resanigebl, ‘can be healed’, ‘curable’. With the ending –a, which corresponds to the adjective function, you know that the idea is expressed as an adjective: resanigebla ‘curable’. To negate an idea you use the word ne, so that neresanigebla is ‘incurable’. If you want to express the concept as a noun, you just replace –a by –o: neresanigeblo ‘incurability’. By replacing the ending by –is, which, as we just saw, indicates that you use the word as a verb in the past tense, you can form li neresanigeblis ‘he was incurable’ (the same idea can also be expressed, of course, by a literal translation of the English sentence: li estis neresanigebla). Perhaps it should be added that the prefix re- ‘back’, ‘again’ is not always necessary. In many cases nesanigebla is quite enough.
Whether you consider vocabulary or grammar, Esperanto is a language in which relationships appear concretely:
Frata ‘fraternal’ has with frato ‘brother’ the same relationship as onkla ‘avuncular’ has with onklo ‘uncle’. Fratino ‘sister’ (and fratina ‘sisterly’) has with frato ‘brother’ the same relationship as onklino ‘aunt’ (and onklina ‘relating to an aunt’, ‘pertaining to an aunt’, ‘typical of an aunt’) has with onklo ‘uncle’.
The fact that in Esperanto every grammar rule, every ending, every prefix or suffix, in fact every linguistic trait, can be immediately generalized increases to an extraordinary extent the productivity of any effort. Once he has learned the pattern hundo / hundino ‘dog’ / ‘bitch’, the child will himself "invent" all nouns of females: kamelino ‘she-camel’, bubalino ‘female buffalo’, porkino ‘sow’, kaprino ‘she-goat’, simiino ‘she-monkey’, etc. Similarly, generalizing the case of hundejo ‘kennel’, he will easily form porkejo ‘pigsty’, kaprejo ‘enclosure for goats’, kamelejo ‘place where camels are kept’, and so on. (The plain root, in nouns referring to animals, is used as a general term; the forms with vir- ‘male’ and –ino ‘female’ are used only when the sex is emphasized: chevalo ‘horse’, chevalino ‘mare’, virchevalo ‘stallion’; porko ‘pig’, porkino ‘sow’, virporko ‘boar’).
Since the word or suffix ido designates the young of an animal, the student has no trouble expressing the idea of a ‘puppy’ (hundido), a ‘piglet’ (porkido) or a ‘kid’ (kaprido). A great number of people who have studied and practiced English for many years – including the writer of this article – do not know if there is an English word for the young of a camel, but the reader who has no knowledge at all of Esperanto apart from the few examples just given will readily produce the corresponding noun: kamelido. In Esperanto, unlike most other languages, vocabulary acquisition proceeds by multiplication, rather than by addition. One single new element can multiply the vocabulary already assimilated in an impressive proportion.
This system enables the user of the language, not only to translate accurately and without difficulty words from his mother tongue, but also to coin new words which are immediately understood by speakers of Esperanto all over the world. For instance, once you have assimilated the sam-----ano pattern of samlandano ‘compatriot’ (land- ‘country’) and samreligiano ‘coreligionist’ (religi- ‘religion’), you can coin such words as samvalano ‘person from the same valley’ (val- ‘valley’), samrasano ‘person of the same race’ (ras- ‘race’), sametnano ‘person of the same ethnic group’ (etn- ‘ethnic group), etc.
Esperanto represents a synthesis, exceptional in the spectrum of languages, that harmoniously integrates rigor and freedom. Rigor, since any grammatical function must be expressed. Freedom, since within the framework of a small number of strict rules, you are free to phrase your thoughts the way you please. Few languages are based on such a perfect integration of both brain hemispheres, the left one (in right handed people) dealing with rigor, the right one with creativity and freedom.
In English, you have to say you obey him. Saying you obey to him or you him obey would be unacceptable. In French you must say vous lui obéissez; forms like vous l’obéissez or vous obéissez lui, although perfectly understandable, are incorrect. Esperanto allows you to say equally, without making a mistake, vi lin obeas, vi obeas lin, al li vi obeas, vi obeas al li, etc. Rigor: subject and object of the action have to be clearly distinguished. Freedom: whether this distinction is made by a preposition or an ending is irrelevant, as is the word order.
Here is another example. Provided you respect the precise meaning of prepositions and endings (rigor), you generally have the choice of expressing the same idea through an adjective, verbal, adverbial or substantive form (freedom). Esperanto for ‘train’ is trajno (aj is pronounced approximately like the pronoun I; stress, as in Swahili, always falls on the last syllable but one). In the sentence ‘He came by train’, the concept ‘train’ can be expressed by a noun: li venis per trajno, an adverb: li venis trajne; a verb: li trajnis or an adjective: lia veno estis trajna.
This high degree of freedom, which actually results from the rigor, is obviously an important advantage for style and expressiveness. The extent to which this advantage is exploited by writers strikes all those who read original Esperanto literature, especially poetry. Furthermore, it has great pedagogical value for those who, having learned Esperanto, study other languages. Familiarity with Esperanto as spoken and written in today’s world acquaints the user with a wide variety of linguistic forms that are nevertheless always clearly understandable. It is thus an introduction to linguistic expression in general, which frees the learner form the constraints of the mother tongue without immediately imposing the rigid structures of a foreign language.
In the sequence "mother tongue / Esperanto / foreign language", the Esperanto phase is the stage of discovery and creativity. Those who go no further will have acquired an instrument of world-wide communication which is very useful in practice and has great cultural and human value. The freedom with which words are formed will have stimulated creativity and developed a feeling for nuances. Those who are capable and willing to proceed further will discover that the assimilation of foreign languages is made remarkably easier by the pleasant and entertaining linguistic training of the Esperanto stage. They will have learned more about the universal structures or human linguistic expression than by the theoretical study of grammar or by proceeding without an intermediate phase to the study of a national or ethnic language.
Factors governing the ease with which a new language can be learned and used
The more consistent the structures, the easier the language. Contrary to what is often believed, consistent structures are much more important in acquiring a new language than similarity with the mother tongue.
The Esperanto verb system is quite different from the verb system of the Romance languages. Does that mean that a French speaking person will find it more difficult to use Esperanto verbs than Spanish ones, considering that the Spanish conjugation presents a wealth of forms and inconsistencies comparable to that of French? By no means. From the first lesson on, the students know how to use all verbs in all persons in the present tense. Once the relevant ending is assimilated, they proceed to the next one, so that an average of twelve lessons is all that is needed for the Esperanto verb system to be fully assimilated. Spanish is quite different. The correct use of only two verbs – ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ – requires more than the same number of lessons.
Obviously, this reasoning applies to the African situation as well. In Hausa, as in French, nouns have a gender, every one being either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Does that mean that French will be easier than Esperanto, a language without genders, for a speaker of Hausa? No. While the structure is similar in Hausa and French, it is consistent in neither. Madara ‘milk’ is feminine in Hausa, whereas its equivalent lait is masculine in French. Viande ‘meat’ is feminine in French but the corresponding word nama is masculine in Hausa. Their translations in Esperanto, and in English, are easier to handle for a Hausa, even if the language is more different in that respect.
Let us consider a still clearer example: plural. In Yoruba, the concept of plural is extremely vague, as in Chinese. Although it is possible to express it, it is not a linguistic necessity and it is done only if deemed really indispensable. In Esperanto, as in English, you have to use a form which indicates whether you speak of one or several things, of one or several persons. That fact implies a real difficulty for speakers of the Yoruba language.
But what is their choice if they want to enjoy a system of communication that goes beyond the local level? The languages with which Esperanto might compete in Africa are English, French, Swahili, Arabic, and perhaps another important African language like Hausa. Not only have all these languages a clear opposition singular/plural, but also plural is in none of them expressed in a thoroughly consistent way. In both Arabic and Hausa, the plural form must be learned with the singular of practically every word. In Swahili, the plural varies according to the complex system of "classes" among which all nouns are distributed. In French, there are a number or irregular forms; for example, many, but not all, words ending in –al and –ail change this to –aux in the plural and there are such deviant forms as oeil /yeux ‘eye’/’eyes’; plural forms of verbs can also be complicated. In English, irregular forms are not numerous, but they still exist: foot/feet, woman/women, sheep/sheep, child/children, mouse/mice, etc.
In Esperanto, there is only one ending to be learned - -j pronounced as y in boy – and it is used in all cases. The Yoruba who learns one of the languages mentioned above must learn two things: (1) the correct use of the category "plural"; (2) the various forms in which it is concretized in the relevant language. In Esperanto, only the first of those requirements exists, since the question of form is disposed of in a fraction of a second.
Experience gained in Japan and China shows that the difficulty with plural, though real, should not be exaggerated. Learning a language always involves difficulties. What distinguishes Esperanto from most other languages is that its difficulties are not arbitrary. A Yoruba who has learned the Esperanto plural will have assimilated a linguistic concept useful for communication, whereas the formal difficulties of its potential rivals in Africa have no relevance for transmitting ideas or feelings. People would understand one another just as well if they said mouses instead of mice, chevals ‘horses’ instead of chevaux. The observation of children’s speech shows that consistency is more natural than inconsistency. The spontaneous tendency of linguistic expression is to use consistent structures.
The examples given above were taken from the field of grammar, but vocabulary also deserves to be considered, since inconsistent lexical structures are also a source of difficulties. French people say concevable ‘conceivable’, but perceptible ‘perceptible’, imprenable ‘which cannot be taken’, ‘impregnable’, but incompréhensible ‘incomprehensible’. Knowing the verbs concevoir, percevoir, prendre, comprendre is of no avail when you need the corresponding adjectives (consistency would require to say *conceptible and *impréhensible, or *percevable and *incomprenable). In Esperanto, koncepti / konceptebla, percepti / perceptebla, preni / prenebla, neprenebla, kompreni / komprenebla, nekomprenebla is a consistent system where finding the word you want is a matter of intelligence, or of reflex, rather than memory.
While one of the difficulties of English for many non-European people derives from the numerous shades of meaning expressed in conjugation (forms such as he went, was going, has gone, would go, used to go, had gone, had been going, has been going, etc. are not easy to handle for people whose language has just one past tense), another lies in the astonishing heterogeneity of the vocabulary.
Such a series as country, national, foreigner, fellow-citizen imposes on memory a heavier burden than its Esperanto equivalent lando, landa, eksterlandano. samlandano. Similarly, the forms tooth and teeth do not help you when you want to express such concepts as dental and dentist. Compare with Swahili: meno ‘teeth’, (w)a meno ‘dental’, daktari wa meno ‘dentist’. The following table shows to what extent the consistent structures of Esperanto favor the memorization and retrieval of words, and thus ease in expressing oneself, in cases where English requires more effort because it often derives an adjective from Latin or French even though the corresponding verb has a Germanic origin:
(Hyphens are included here just to emphasize the invariability of the Esperanto and Swahili verbal morphemes; they are not used in standard writing).
Esperanto is not the only language in which both grammar and vocabulary have such a high degree of consistency. Chinese, Caribbean Creoles, Malay, Malagasy, etc. are also composed of invariable elements that combine freely to express the speaker’s ideas. Swahili roots are also mostly invariable. But those languages have features that make them less adapted than Esperanto to inter-ethnic use in today’s world. Haitian Creole, for instance, lacks many abstract words and replaces them either with long cumbersome phrases or with words borrowed from French. Chinese has a phonetic system which most foreigners find difficult to adapt to, because of the so-called tones: the word transcribed as shiyan means ‘experiment’, ‘salt’, ‘test’, ‘rehearsal’, or ‘pledge’ according to whether the voice is ascending or descending on this or that syllable, as well as according to the relative pitch.
Tones exist also in many African languages, but it is easier for somebody accustomed to a tone language to use a toneless one – i.e. a language in which the melody of a sentence is a matter of style, emotional expression or regional accent rather than meaning - than to use a language with a different tone system.
In Bantu languages, the system of classes makes it more difficult for the speakers of non-Bantu languages to express themselves spontaneously. It requires less drilling to learn, and less practice to use spontaneously, the Esperanto preposition de ‘of’ than the Swahili –a which has the same function, but varies according to the class of the preceding noun:
In Esperanto it is also possible to use a simple word combination, similar to its English equivalent except that it is written as a single word and that the first element usually loses its vowel ending: dompordo ‘house door’, dommuro ‘house wall’, infanlibro ‘child’s book’, etc.
Esperanto, a living language
The idea, quite widespread in the West, especially in Europe, that there cannot be a cultural, really human language without all sorts of exceptions and inconsistencies is a pure ethnocentric prejudice. Chinese is a highly consistent language, from which the very concept of irregular verbs or plurals is completely absent. It has nevertheless a beautiful and rich literature: cultural richness is independent of grammatical complications.
As for the idea, equally widespread, that Esperanto is an Indo-European language, it stems from an insufficient analysis of facts. Structurally, Esperanto has more features in common with isolating and agglutinating languages than with the flexional languages of the Indo-European and Semito-Hamitic families. Word roots were borrowed from European languages, but this does not change the deep structural reality. The spirit of a language is determined by its structure rather than by the shape of its words. Caribbean French Creole is evidence that a language can have a vocabulary etymologically closer to Romance tongues than Esperanto and still stand, structurally, outside the Indo-European family.
Nobody would dare to pronounce a judgment on a car, a restaurant or the poetic flavor of this or that African dialect without having driven that car, eaten in that restaurant or become acquainted with the relevant poetry. Intellectual honesty requires the same restraint in the case of Esperanto.
Those who have heard speakers of Esperanto from 20 countries laughing at the same second while listening to one of their humorists know that humor can have a universal quality that can be conveyed by that international language. Those who have attended a debate in it, read Esperanto cultural journals, discovered its songs an poetry and heard how children use it in playing know that it meets all the requirements of a modern language, both popular and literary.
There is nothing surprising in that fact. Expression is all the more fluent as the speaker is less inhibited by grammatical and lexical difficulties or by the fear of making mistakes. Whoever reads the poems written in Esperanto by Miyamoto Masao or the rendering in that language of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat marvels at the simplicity of Zamenhof’s language, in which the finest of non-European sensibilities express themselves with an ease and an art without rival in the realm of intercultural communication.
There are people who blame Esperanto – without being familiar with it – for being "artificially constructed" or "the work of just one man". Again, this stems from an ignorance of facts that are not difficult to check. What Zamenhof published in 1887 with the name "International Language" was only an embryo: 16 grammar rules, a few hundred morphemes and a few examples of texts. The meagerness was intentional. He had understood that a language is a social, collective and anonymous phenomenon. He had the wisdom to realize that only practice could give life to this slender skeleton, and he also succeeded in giving this linguistic nucleus a structure suited to bringing about its natural development through simple contact with the demands of life.
History has proved him right. A number of people in quite different cultural settings adopted this embryonic new language to communicate freely with one another. As anticipated by Zamenhof, the linguistic nucleus, simply through being used, developed into a full-fledged language. Besides the modest and anonymous community of first users, there appeared talented writers and poets whose contribution to the growth of the language was extremely important. The publication of Esperanto versions of the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, as well as of several texts belonging to the Confucianist tradition, have also helped people from various cultures to find answers to a number of linguistic questions.
As a matter of fact, Esperanto is the product of the collective will of a number of people, scattered in a bit more than a hundred countries, to communicate with as few inhibitions as possible across language barriers. Many of the features or the language have come about unconsciously by the process that linguists call "the influence of the substratum" with the peculiarity that the substratum is the most intercultural that ever existed in the history of language. Africans who join the Esperanto diaspora can only bring to its evolution an original contribution which will be a new cultural enrichment for the whole world.
Esperanto is hardly known in many regions of Africa. This is the result of various historical factors. It was in the interest of the colonizers to tie to their own culture the people they were colonizing. France is still carrying out in Africa an extremely active policy designed to maintain its influence through the French language and the culture linked to it. The old maxim of "divide and conquer" has never become obsolete.
Some members of the African elites will probably be reluctant to consider seriously the suggestion made in this paper. They may see in it a threat to the privileged position that goes with a real mastery of difficult languages such as English and French. But all those who have the interests of the African populations really at heart have the moral duty to inquire seriously into the possibilities offered by Esperanto for effective communication across the language barriers of Africa.
Africans need to communicate among themselves. Why should they use for that purpose languages which, besides being associated with cultural pressures from powerful countries, are full of complications that are totally irrelevant to the African context, not to mention the fact that using European languages can only perpetuate divisions stemming from the colonial past? If Esperanto were introduced into elementary schools all through Africa, every one could retain his dialect or language and the culture associated with it, and still be capable of communicating with fellow Africans – and with many people all over the world, many of them not belonging to the socially privileged – whatever their respective mother tongues.
Instead of spending years of painstaking efforts to master the intricacies of French past participles or the elusive subtleties of English grammar and usage, would it not be a benefit for all African children to acquire an easy but expressive language which, belonging to no people in particular, belongs equally to all?
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