Speaking a Foreign Language

Working in another culture? Learn the language.

Haiti has two official languages: French and Creole. French is the language of the elite- business owners and the government, in fact it has been stated that less than 10% of the country actually speaks French. But Creole is for everyone.  Creole is a language that is based on French, Spanish and African dialects, it began as the language the African slaves spoke among themselves. Creole is steeped in national pride and ties back to when the Haitians won their independence from the French.  Children grow up speaking Creole at home then begin to learn French in elementary school. Their culture is tied to the Creole language- jokes, proverbs like Sak pa la- are in Creole. Yet much of their education, including the textbooks, is in French. When I visit a new area in Haiti and begin to speak usually someone tells me I should speak French.  Speaking French is a status symbol. My reply is always the same, I explain that I want to communicate with everyone in Haiti and I love Creole!

Learning a new language as an adult is quite challenging.  Let me tell you, it is worth it- worth the time with flashcards and the embarrassment of pronouncing things wrong.  My mom once made an incredibly funny, but mortifying mistake while telling a newly married friend to give her husband lots of kisses… she didn’t exactly say kisses! But, walk into a Haitian village, as a blan, “foreigner”, and watch the faces light up when you speak Creole. It garners an instant audience, instant respect. It proves your commitment and care.

If you are travelling to a new country, even for a brief trip, take some time to learn a few basic phrases.  It will mean the world to the people you are there to help. With youtube it is much easier, watch a few videos and pay close attention to the pronunciations. There are also several really good apps available to make learning even more convenient.

The relationships I have built in Haiti over the years were made possible by my commitment to learn Creole. I know a different side of Haiti because I can be a part of the mundane, day to day conversations that may not be worthy of a translator. Also, speaking Creole tankou rat, “like a rat” leads to people saying I am Haitian which I consider the highest compliment.


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