On to language and development

The language barrier is frustrating but getting better. Most of Liberian English is just dropping the last letter of every word and then running the words together in the sentence. But as I mentioned, there are also vowel changes. Sometimes I have no idea what words people are saying. Internet is pronounced entenet, mister is mista (but not in the southern way, if you know what I mean), hello is allo, good evening is ga’evenin. Battery is bah – tree with emphasis on the tree. I have a very good Liberian English teacher, I can’t understand a word he says! But as I ask him to slow down and say it again I begin to hear the cadence. “Please wait for me” I heard as “Ee ay or me” and said very fast. Most confusing, “ay” is pronounced “i” almost always. So pay is pie, day is die, etc.

But while the English here is not like ours, and maybe not grammatically correct according to US standards. It seems to me, that US standards don’t mean much. After all, if everyone here understands each other when someone says “ee ay or me” then that means, in American English “please wait for me.” I like thinking about language as an organism that changes and grows through time and place. So of course it would be different here.

I’m also a little confused about the term “pidgin English.” Call me a relativist* but I think pidgin languages can only occur within the same cultural context as the dominant form of speaking the language. So the rural dialects here that sound very little like English are pidgin Liberian English, but Liberian English is not pidgin standard English. Maybe I’m splitting hairs but I would argue that calling Liberian English pidgin as a whole reinforces the “western=good and everyone else=simple” mentality.**

Which brings me to development. Now I don’t think development is inherently wrong or always done badly, but from what I’ve been hearing about development in Liberia…there have been some mistakes. Most of the nurses who were here for the workshop, talked about how NGOs and the Liberian government compete for staff, since NGO’s can usually pay more (especially INGOs) they attract more qualified staff. There’s a brain drain from government positions, even though there have been attempts to provide incentives to government employees and the positions are more permanent than NGO positions. There’s also the problem in government that no one wants to take the position out in Nimba (pronounced Neema) county or other out of the way places because there’s nothing but towns and villages out there (it’s like Mantua, only without electricity or potable drinking water…and hot).
The nurses also complained that there was little oversight into programs designed for the whole state (such as education programs, and how to set up health centers) and that regionally there were differences that made it difficult to implement a national program that didn’t take regionalism into consideration. Liberia, they said, was not unique, but it seemed to be an African problem. I wanted to chime in (but didn’t because when conversations like this get heated in Liberia, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise unless you are louder than everyone else)***. I was thinking that yes, this probably is an African problem, the lack of focus on regional differences, and yes, it probably relates to colonial lines, little national cohesion on the part of some governments and poor communication systems. Also, the INGO system that up until recently was not very participatory didn’t help. Even today, reading the theses of my colleagues here, it seems that the problem of INGO’s not listening to their local partners is nearly endemic. This seems to stem from a lack of ownership (should we call it agency?) on the part of local NGO’s on their own decision making, the restrictions of grants, and the lack of direct face to face time with the local partners and their donors. Of course, there have to be restrictions on grants, but perhaps they could be decided at the local level instead of the international so that a program to address women’s empowerment could include education of men and employment outside the home, rather than just preaching to the choir, empowering women financially through employment, loans or whatever, and sending them home to deal with the consequences of their new found freedom. There’s another blog post in that.

*AH! There it is again!
**This came up as one of the staff at DEN-L asked how my pidgin English was coming, unfortunately, because of the language barrier and the fact that we were both in the middle of working, I could explain this rant to him.

***But I did manage to follow all the pieces!


3 thoughts on “On to language and development

  1. What you are describing is a dialect of English, not pidgin English. Pidgin English is what people who don't speak English as a first language speak (like how when I try to speak French I just speak Frangish instead). Liberian English is just as much fully fledged English as American, British, Australian or Jamaican English (or any subdialect within those countries).

  2. second hand story from my brother in benin… he was digging wells in places a lot like nimba, and explaining to them basic sanition (dont poop on the hill above the well, which is actually a HUGE problem). he ran into the same issues with evolved language. (they spoke “french”) only he and one other guy in his group spoke any french and they could hardly understand anything, because they weren't even fluent in the first place. so basically, they were traveling rural africa digging wells communicating nonverbally….

  3. PeePee, again, it was a man I work with who called it pidgin, my rant was that that didn't make sense. Though I still can't help but picture pidgins when discussing this.

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