Assimilation, Acclimation, and Accommodation
In the early days, one of the main problems with the language was figuring out the different tenses without a common language. After some perplexing experiences, I realized that Mamadou didn’t clearly understand tenses in French because he had never learned them. I was, therefore, on my own when it came to deciphering past, present, and future in Pulaar. As long as I had those tenses under control, I could then work on more complicated tenses and any thing else unique to Pulaar that I didn’t even know about yet.
My plan, however, was foiled because getting past and present straightened out wasn’t so easy for one simple reason. In Pulaar, people use the past tense, not only for past actions, but also right before actually doing something. For example, if someone were leaving the compound, they said “Mi yahi,” or “I have gone.” If they actually said “I am going” or “mi yaha,” that meant they would go soon (or our future tense). This took me a long time to comprehend because once I had the past tense down pat (or at least thought I had it figured out), someone said, “I have gone,” even though they were still standing in front of me. I asked Mamadou over and over again before I finally worked out that past and present in Pulaar were not exactly equivalent to past and present in English. The context explained whether someone was going to go or had already gone. Once I got the system down, and started to think in Pulaar, and use the same tenses as everyone else for the same actions and events, everything fell into place. Once in awhile I made a mistake with the tenses because I made the mistake of reverting back to English structures.
For example, Mamadou had gone into Tambacounda for the day. A villager passed by the compound, greeted me, and asked if Mamadou had returned. I replied “O arri,” which I thought meant “he will be coming back.” The passer-by then turned around and came into the compound. When he asked Mother for Mamadou, Mother said that he hadn’t come back yet. I felt guilty but remained silent. I realized that I must have said “He has come back.” It was often hard for me to figure out what mistake I had made, and how to correct it when there was no common language between me and everyone else in the village. I had to write things down, and hope for the best, but also be prepared to change what I had written at a moment’s notice.
From the very beginning, I understood vastly more than I could explain. People said things to me that I clearly comprehended, yet I couldn’t repeat the words in a similar manner. I spent a great deal of time listening, not only for words and phrases but also for inflections and, perhaps most importantly, how sentences were put together. Simple commands were relatively easy because they were direct and unambiguous. I sometimes felt as if I sat around all day giving commands! Eventually, word and sentence patterns became familiar and comfortable. I always had to think before speaking, although I am not convinced that is such a bad thing in any language.
Early in my stay, I was like a two-year old child with simple, concrete words and phrases which I gradually learned to put together. I soon progressed to a three-year old’s level, then a four-year old, and so on. It didn’t help matters when kids said things I couldn’t understand or laughed at my Pulaar. It appeared that most people understood me, despite fundamental mistakes in vocabulary and grammar. I usually could laugh once I realized my incorrect phrases, words and tenses. Periodically, I felt more like crying, convinced that I would never learn the language. I was frustrated at being unable to communicate as well as I wanted to, and expressing myself eloquently and forcefully. When I did feel frustrated, I had to retreat briefly and remember that I had never even heard of this language a few months ago, and that mastering it was perhaps the hardest job I had ever attempted. I also had to take comfort in being able to speak and communicate at all with people from a vastly different culture and world.
Even after a few months, I was still learning new words and phrases which I tried out in the compound. Often Yero or Aliou taught me a new word or phrase in conversation which I wrote down and practiced. I waited for the opportunity to show off my newly acquired word or phrase. I wanted to work it into conversation unobtrusively and effortlessly, in a vain hope that listeners would think I had known the word or phrase all along. Mamadou and Ruby knew my entire vocabulary so well that they immediately picked up when I said a new word or phrase. “Good,” Mamadou would tell me when I dropped the new word in conversation. So much for my hope of slipping it in unnoticed.
“Who taught you that word?” Ruby would ask. No matter how subtly I attempted to try out the new word in conversation, someone noted it was new. Ruby seemed to wait for me to say something, and then she pounced on the word triumphantly. “Who taught you that?” she asked, knowing very well that I had never used that word before.
Ruby sometimes took the game even further. A couple of times we were sitting outside when I said a new word or phrase. Ruby called out in a loud, clear voice to the neighbors, “Listen, neighbors, Ousmane Sow knows a new word.”
“What word is that?” a neighbor would ask delighted. Everyone seemed to drop whatever they were doing and look over into our compound. Ruby then called out the word to the neighbors, who then called out to me to say it. A couple of times I went along and said the word, to everyone’s laughter and delight.
“Say it again,” the neighbors demanded.
“What new word did Ousmane Sow learn today?” another neighbor called out, from another direction. Believe me, this got tired very quickly. I regretted ever having said the word, and refused to say it again. Ruby, of course, had far too much fun with this game, and she always let the neighbors know the new word.
Some other times, I refused to play along and repeat the word for the neighbors, embarrassed that my learning a new word was village gossip. The worst times were when other villagers, nowhere near our compound, would call out the new word to me as I passed by later. Days after I had learned a new word, I would hear the word being called out to me all over the village. This threatened to make me paranoid! The whole village seemed aware when I learned a new word, and delighted in calling it out to me. The most embarrassment came when young children ran up to me, shrieking the word I had just learned and used in conversation. It was enough to make anyone refrain from ever uttering a new syllable or word again!
There was one time when this game took an embarrassing, but amusing, turn for Ruby. When angry with Fatou or Julia, Ruby would exclaim “Allah bouni ma!” I liked the tone of voice she used, but more importantly, I knew instantly it was a “curse” phrase. It literally translated as “God use you” which in English translated as “God damn you.” I repeated the phrase a couple of times to myself and stored it in my memory bank.
There came a time when the phrase was perfectly suited to my purposes. Fatou was playing with the water can, which she shouldn’t have been doing, when she dropped it and the water splashed on me.
“Allah bouni ma,” I exclaimed. I said it in the same way that Ruby did, with emphasis on the second word. As soon as the words were spoken, I realized Mamadou was sitting nearby, within earshot.
“Ruby Diallo taught you that,” Mamadou said. I didn’t deny that she had been my teacher. Ruby pretended not to have heard. I acquired a few other choice expressions, always grateful to Ruby for teaching me my very first forbidden phrase in Pulaar. It came in extremely handy when I was angry or annoyed. Often I said the phrase to get a laugh. A couple of times when I said the phrase, a person remarked, “You really know Pulaar now.” I was also careful to avoid any forbidden words in the presence of the chief, Chierno Moussa Sow, or any distinguished villager or visitor.