The Language-Ignorant American
I AM INSECURE ABOUT SOUNDING LIKE A JERK, except when I mean to. It’s probably one of the reasons Chileans always comment on my Spanish. I deflect the compliments with an “I’ve been here a long time” or an “I’m just fascinated by languages,” because the truth — “I hate sounding like a colonialist English-first wanker” — takes too long.
I’ve made it a point to get to a level in Spanish that helps me in much of South America, where I live.
But not in Suriname.
I have never apologized for my lack of language so many times as on a recent trip there. The assumption, if you’re vaguely European-looking, is that you’re Dutch. Suriname was a Dutch colony until 36 years ago, and a large number of recent college grads from Holland come to do internships.
I’m too old to be a recent college grad, but I could also easily be a Dutch tourist, coming to escape winter, enjoy one of the few other countries on Earth where my native language is spoken, and glimpse the scarlet ibis in Bigi Pan.
Except I’m not. I flew straight (well, as straight as you can) from Chile, where it was also summer, and though I did go to Nickerie to catch sight of some ibises in the swampland, I had to do it in English.
Wherever I went, restaurants, bike rental places, convenience stores (where they had ice cold Vitasoy soy milk in a glass bottle, which I gladly downed), a jumble of unknown words would come towards me, and I would hold my right hand up, as if to halt the words, a physical apology, a shield, and then I would say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.”
Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.
Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.
I realized, though, that my embarrassment at not being able to speak Dutch was more related to disappointing people, or about seeming incompetent, than not being able to communicate. In the end, most of the people I told that I didn’t speak Dutch spoke to me in English.
Across the river from Paramaribo in Commewijne, the kid at the Chinese-owned convenience store (lots of these in Suriname, as elsewhere in South America) — and later Derrick, who rented me a bike in Nickerie near the library where I came upon a herd of goats — both spoke to me in English.
The woman at the pharmacy where I failed to buy ear drops also spoke to me in English, as did a man whom I met under an awning at a Chinese supermarket during a particularly heavy rainstorm. He told me about how his wife (of African descent) could cook all the cuisines of Suriname, pom, a baked chicken casserole, saoto, a Javanese fried potato soup, and different Indian and Chinese dishes too, which was why he’d been at the Chinese supermarket, to pick up supplies.
In addition to not speaking Dutch, I also don’t speak Sranan Tongo, another language of Suriname, a creole knitted out of several languages, including some West African ones, English, and Portuguese. It’s a lingua franca among various ethnic groups, though I heard it used mainly by people of African and Javanese descent.
The president, Dési Bouterse, gave part of his independence day speech in Sranan Tongo last year, under a heavy rainstorm I thought would short out the music system as mud pooled up to my ankles. Everyone speaks Sranan Tongo, while probably only 60% of Surinamese speak Dutch as a first language.
When listening to Sranan Tongo, I can occasionally make out a word here and there, or even a sentence, like “Me no sabi” (“I don’t know,” which uses the word for “to know” from Portuguese). I learned fa waka? (“how are you”), because it seemed the right thing to do, but I never got much farther.
When I set off for the interior, a few hours up the Suriname River from Atjoni, itself a few hours’ drive from Paramaribo, I cheek-by-jowled it in a minivan with seven other people, none of whom preferred Dutch, nor spoke to me in English. We fa waka-ed, and then they started in Saramaccan, and I sat silently.
I’d like to tell you we were the best of friends after the trip, and that we enjoyed a wordless exchange in which we came to great understandings about each other’s cultures. But mainly I wondered what the protocol was on returning the bony-bottomed child sitting on my lap to her caretaker, and how stuck her glossy red lollipop was going to get to my pale thigh.
One night after sunset in the interior, when river-splashes sound like they could be crocodiles rather than children, a group of people gathered on some hand-carved wooden benches and stools outside the place I was staying in Pikin Slee. Pikin, from the Portuguese pequenho, means “small,” though Pikin Slee, with about 4,000 people, is no longer particularly small.
Toya — one of the men in charge of the town’s Saamaka Museum, with displays on the Maroon (escaped slave) culture — is a master carver, and he had come for an after-dinner chat and smoke. I had seen him several times while walking through town, including right outside his house, where I took a picture of some white-painted graffiti on a bench that proclaimed “Love Pikin Slee.”
At one point that night, the conversation slowed, and he turned to me and spoke to me in Dutch. I responded with my hand-deflection, and an apology. He didn’t ask if I spoke Saramaccan, the language spoken in the area, and in which I could only say good morning and good afternoon, and that only with prompting. He asked if I spoke taki-taki, a way of referring to Sranan Tongo. And I had to shake my head no.
Eventually he got up to go, and said, “amanha,” to which I responded, “amanha,” from the Portuguese “tomorrow,” as in, see you then. Which I did, but I still couldn’t say anything to him, or more importantly, understand anything he said to me.
I can’t speak these languages, and even worse, I can’t really understand them, except for a few key phrases. There are so many conversations I could have with so many different people in the world, and won’t, because even if I become conversant in Dutch, and Sranan Tongo, and Saramaccan, and Aukan (another language spoken in Suriname), there will be hundreds more languages that I fail at. And even if I took three months to study each of them like Benny the Irish Polyglot, a) I would never get close to learning them all, and b) I wouldn’t be happy with my level in any of them.
So I’m back to missing out on conversations and otherwise feeling like a jerk, once I’m outside the range of English and Spanish. Which means I can live in fear of disappointing other people and myself and feeling ignorant, or I can just get over it. After 41 years on this planet, I’m pretty sure it will always be the former.