Why you should take foreign languages seriously

By: Tumusiime K. Deo, Kampala-
Immediately we stepped foot in Senior One over two decades ago, one of the greatest challenges, was how to manage over 16 subjects. At some point, you would have more homework to do than could ordinarily fit within the available free time. As we progressed to Senior Three, we were advised to reduce the subjects to at least ten, and by Senior Four, a maximum of eight. Among the languages offered was English which was compulsory, being the main language of instruction. French was the other, but optional.

Learning French for the first time late in life as an examinable subject was quite challenging. Indeed many of us dropped it at S.3 to avoid compromising our grades, while a few students from Francophone countries who already knew French, carried on with it easily. This reminds me also of the President’s brother, Gen. Salim Saleh who, when he sat High School exams as a mature, included Kiswahili among his subjects; and being the predominant language for the army, he passed it with flying colors. While dropping French, little did we know just how much we might miss it later in life.

Two decades down the road, I recently travelled to Senegal in West Africa. I hadn’t been to a country where no one spoke at least some English, but here I was and 99% of the people I came into contact with, spoke no language other than French. Oh, my Word; the colonialists were extremely effective in imparting the French language on an entire nation, and it’s been wholly adopted across generations.

So, was I finished completely or completely finished? Not quite. It was my chance to display all the little French I ever learnt in school and through friends. So I would say with a smile to everyone I met, “Bonjour!” and they would reply smartly thinking I was one of them. And then I would be quiet for a while as they said more words I scarcely could understand. I would then say, “Merci, merci. Je suis heureux de vous rencontrer” And at least I knew how to ask for food! Interesting just how the French words I learnt way back have stuck on mind down the years and aw, they were indeed handy albeit not just enough. For most of the time I could hardly sustain conversations but showed willingness to learn.

I arrived in Dakar late in the night and the driver that had been booked to pick me up was nowhere to be seen. I was swarmed up by tens of taxi drivers, all speaking nothing else but French-we couldn’t quite communicate. Later, one guy who knew at least 10% English showed up and he helped me to my hotel; and it was a battle again. I checked-in properly and we “agreed” with the attendant on the pickup time for my next flight. Check-in was meant to be at 2.00pm; but while I was at the hotel door on time, there was no cab arranged to pick me-language disconnect at its worst.

I was staying quite out of town and getting a cab at short notice was very difficult. I quickly lost my cool, trying to assure my hosts that we had indeed agreed they would arrange my pickup, but from their expressions, they must have been saying to me that the agreement was that I be dropped and I arrange my next pickup. It was soon to be a battle of English vs French-forget the fact that neither of us was necessarily from England or France. I could imagine a Mukiga from Kabale taking on these Senegalese in the crudest Rukiga; possibly a fight would have ensued to cap it all! Thankfully the calm Ugandan in me, sooner than later regained my composure, counted my losses and left sought alternative means.

I ran like a headless chicken to find another cab, but again, the driver I found, only spoke French. I just gestured to my wrist to emphasize that I was really late and that I cared less how much it would cost me, as long as I got to the airport in time for my flight. Along the way, we argued about the price, but none of us could comprehend the other. I gave him all the CFA (Senegalese currency) I had on me, but he still looked unpleased. I added him a Dollar and another and he still wasn’t happy. I added him another dollar and by this time we had arrived the airport-he simply let me go and, “au revoir”, he waved goodbye. “Bonne Voyage” indeed it later was to be as I supposedly left without a debt!

Ugandans should count themselves lucky because ours is one country where we speak tens of languages-almost every region its own. If there be a cell in the brain that is in charge of languages, then here is an appropriate ground to get it teased out. And surely it’s worked for President Museveni, because wherever he goes, he’s at least able to greet the people in their language. This sense of identity with the populace, has kept him a darling countrywide. And I for one, a couple of years ago on my sister’s introduction ceremony, I delivered my entire speech in Luo- all the guests nearly laughed their hearts out in awe!

Well, despite my challenges in Senegal, the little French I knew endeared me to a good number, thanking me for trying. And by the time I left, I was a few words to the good.

My thinking is that foreign languages should be introduced early in children’s education, and they should be told of the importance. Let children learn as many languages for fun and not necessarily for examination. And for the adults: Thanks to online translation engines; there’s no reason not knowing at least a greeting in the language of a country you are visiting for the first time.

Now you know why you must never laugh at the dumb, for they too also have their language-just that many of us don’t comprehend it!