Foreign Confusion: Are We Speaking English?

by missfootloose on September 6, 2014 · 12 comments

in expat stories, Kenya, language, travel

Don’t you just love learning a foreign language? It is so much fun! Okay, it’s also exasperating, difficult and often confusing. I am now learning French, and I know whereof I speak. However, even a language you are familiar with spoken in other parts of the world can offer up befuddlements, discombobulations and mortifications.

It is a truth like a cow (a Dutch expression) that as an expat or a world traveler you have a great advantage if you speak English. You’re especially lucky if you live in a foreign country that actually has English as its official language. It makes shopping for food and reading signs so much easier, don’t you agree?

Road sign in KenyaNo Picking or Alighting!

So, having learned English (in school in my native Holland and later living in the US) paid off for me when I lived in Kenya, East Africa, where both English and Swahili are official languages. I did learn some Swahili, like Cho iko wapi? (Where is the bathroom?) and other such useful phrases.

My mate was an American Peace Corps volunteer at the time and we lived in a shabby little house loved by spiders and army ants. The kitchen was a built-on little shack without a fridge or oven. But I was delighted with the little lemon tree in front of the house and other (to me) exotic plants and flowers in the garden.

A maize field started at the bottom of our lawn and often we would see women tending the corn. Kikuyu farm women toil like no others. Most stunning to me was seeing women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs, often with a baby strapped on in front.

Photo credit | Creative Commons License

I was home one afternoon when a rain storm hit. A deluge of water poured forth from the heavens, drumming on our corrugated metal roof. Somehow, above the noise, I became aware of voices outside the front door. I opened it to investigate and found two young Kikuyu women hiding under the roof overhang, farm implements clutched in their hands. They were drenched. They must have come running over from the shamba below to take cover.

They looked at me wide-eyed and terrified. This was a new experience for me, since it’s not usually the reaction I get when people look at my most ordinary person. Clearly these girls – they were teenagers, really – had not expected to see a white human emerge from this little house. They may never have had a close encounter with one of my kind before, since not many wazungu lived in the area at that time.

Since the rain kept a-pouring, I did what was the right thing to do: I invited them in to wait out the deluge. Their eyes grew wider and they looked even more terrified than before, they with the pangas (machetes) and other sharp tools in their hands.

What to do? Clearly, they’d be happiest if I just closed the door and left them alone out there under the overhang. I understood this, although it made me feel uncharitable. So I decided to do the other proper thing, at least for a Dutch person, and offer them a cup of tea.

A green field of black tea. Kenya is the largest exporter of black tea in the world. India is the largest producer and consumer.

“Would you like some chai?” I asked. Chai is the Swahili word for tea, a most beloved beverage in Kenya.

“I don’t mind,” one of the girls said. This took me aback a little. I looked at the other girl, who had said nothing.

“Would you like some chai?”

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Sheesh, I thought, you don’t mind? You can take it or leave it? If I really want to make the effort to fix it, you’ll do me the favor of drinking it?

Peeved a little, I went to the shacky kitchen and brewed the chai, the Kenyan way. I steeped tea leaves in a pan with boiling water, then poured in a copious amount of milk, added a motherload of sugar and brought the lot up to a boil again. No spices like the Indian variety. I had a package of British cookies (biscuits) and put some on a plate, because in Holland you never just offer tea and coffee without something sweet to go with it. The girls said thank you very nicely when I handed them the tray. I left the door ajar, since it seemed so rude to just close it in their faces.

After the storm blew over, I went outside again and found the girls gone, the cups empty, the cookies eaten, the world sparkling.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that in Kenya “I don’t mind” simply means “Yes, please.”

As in many countries that have English as their official language, Kenya too has its own local usages and idioms. It’s often referred to as Kenglish. Here are a few:

“Let me give you a push.” No, that does not mean your Kenyan friend will shove you in a corner. It means that when you’re leaving to go somewhere, he’ll walk along with you.

Say you’ve been gone for a while, on vacation, or on home leave. After you’re back in Kenya, people are happy to see you again and will comment: “You’ve been lost!” (And been found again!)

“Can you pick me?” Pick you for what? To win a prize? To join your team? No, it means: Can you give me a ride/lift? And when you’ve reached your destination you ask the driver to stop because you want to alight. Now you can make sense of the sign at the top of the post.

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Have you ever been flabbergasted by some language confusion? Do share! The more colorful and embarrassing, the better. Go ahead, scroll down and hit that comment button!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

guyana_gyal September 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Country-folks here also say “I don’t mind” when you offer them something to eat or drink. It leaves me a bit baffled every time they say it, and I am from here!
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Welshcakes Limoncello September 8, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Yes, there’s more to learning a language than learning a language!
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missfootloose September 9, 2014 at 5:34 pm

And then there are all the hand gestures! 😉

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Sine Thieme September 11, 2014 at 2:44 am

My favorite ones from South Africa: We will give you a thinkle (we’ll call you on the phone), ballbox (an athletic cup), diarise (put something on your calendar), I’m really pissed (not, as I thought, pissed OFF, but drunk!). Also see http://www.joburgexpat.com/2011/11/pitfalls-of-another-language-even-if-it.html for my own similar story.

I love the Kenyanisms!
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Sine Thieme September 11, 2014 at 2:46 am

Hmmm – I don’t seem to be able to see the other comments anymore. All I see is the box to enter mine, but when I submit it, it’s gone. Although the count above increases. Thoughts?
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missfootloose September 11, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Sine, thank you for pointing this out to me. I have no clue! Can’t see them myself either below the posts, but do see them in my “behind the scenes” comment list. Will go to WP support I guess. I’ve done nothing new or strange.

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Sami Veloso September 16, 2014 at 5:20 pm

I can imagine they must have been frightened by a white woman offering them tea!
When I came to Australia I was quite confused by some of their words – and remember a colleague telling me a story which included the word “chook” and I had no idea what she was talking about, but felt embarrassed to ask, and only weeks later did I came across that word and the meaning (chicken). Another time, three of my colleagues and I went out to eat and one of them said “It’s my shout!” Feeling more comfortable with her and had to ask what she was “shouting” and she explained that it meant “she was offering to pay”.
At times I felt as if I was learning a new language, which wasn’t English!

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missfootloose September 16, 2014 at 5:41 pm

It’s my shout — I like that! Australian English has lots of fun home-grown sayings and words. I even had a whole book about it once!

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Naomi September 17, 2014 at 1:49 am

Love it! I’ve added it to the group discussion at the I am a Triangle facebook page … “I don’t mind” !!

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Karen Harbaugh September 22, 2014 at 6:54 pm

I love these differences! When lived in the tri-border area of Germany (just a 15 minute walk to the Netherlands), I used to drive over to Sittard, Heerlen, and sometimes Maastricht to shop at the markets. One of our friends was a Dutch lady who worked for my husband’s company, and whose job it was to shepherd the new expats through various bureaucratic processes that every expat must go through in Germany, and other places we might land. She often would say some Dutch proverbs in English, that were close enough, but not exactly what I was used to hearing. For example, she’d say, “a good name is better than oil,” and I’d sit there thinking, maybe that’s the same meaning as “a good name is better than gold”? Or, “a poor workman always blames his rig.” And I’d think, maybe that’s “a poor workman always blames his tools?” Many of the expressions were very similar…except for one word. 🙂

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missfootloose September 22, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Hi Karen. How about this one: It’s the drop that made the bucket flow over… (think straw and camel 😉

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Bob Evans October 4, 2014 at 6:38 am

One example comes immediately to mind. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in the early 2000’s, many restaurants were offering English translations of their menus from the original Russian for foreign travelers. One particular favorite dish was Language Cow. It took me a little bit to figure it out and I laughed out lod when I did. With your experience in Moldova, you may have run across it, so I won’t give it away, but leave it to your readers to work it out.

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