Learning the language
Class of 2017
(9/2016) I have a thousand goals, every year, ranging from waking up to my first alarm instead of my 12th alarm each day, to taking detailed notes in class so that I can effectively study for tests for the first time in my life. Most years, actually all years, a vast majority of these "goals" turn into unattainable wishes and dreams of a more
optimistic and motivated version of my true self. This year, I will set these same goals and maybe, just maybe, since it is somewhat of a last ditch effort in my final year, some will come true; however, Iím not going to put all of my eggs into these same baskets another year. Instead, I will still try every day to wake up on time, be attentive, etc., but I will have a single
overarching goal that will hopefully dictate a lot of my down-time: learn Creole.
Haitian Creole is the true language of the Haitian people, Google will tell you that the official language of Haiti is French; however, only the privileged speak French. Creole has been referred to as the broken French, or a dialect of French, but if that were true, then those who speak Creole may understand French, which they do not. It is a language
of its own, derived from French and African languages spoken by slaves who were brought from West Africa to work on plantations in Haiti. Creole has its own system of grammar, pronunciation, and more that separates it from any other language.
Letís circle back around Ė this is obviously not a goal directly related to my final academic year, nor does it correlate to any of my coursework. It is, instead, tied to the calendar of the academic year. By the time I return to Haiti in May, after graduation, I would like to have made progress in accomplishing this goal. It is by no means fully
attainable in eight months, which is why I hope to reach a benchmark, not fluency, in my knowledge of the language. I have academic goals and they do impact my study habits and the way I spend my time, but this year, as I look further from college and closer into my career, I do believe this is an appropriate goal.
Three weeks ago, I was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I went with my friend, Reese, to get propane from a gas station so that the cooks could make dinner for the kids. We pulled into the lot, and the woman working the propane tank immediately approached us with a widening smile and starting speaking in Creole to Reese, who is close to fluent. I stood
beside her, greeted the woman and had a very, very short and surface level conversation. It didnít go any further. She tried to compliment my hair and I couldnít understand. Next to me, Reese was carrying on a full conversation, with obvious depth, and ended up singing with her as she pumped propane.
I walked away from that conversation hearing the woman tell Reese that she wished I knew Creole and to come back to visit next time Iím in Port-au-Prince. For the first time in weeks leading up to that point, I was truly frustrated. The Creole that I thought I knew didnít end up being enough. Even in Haiti, I am spoiled because the children that I work
with all speak English. They are raised bilingual. The school I have taught in teaches English. Even when going out into the Ravine or out to the countryside, I have always been surrounded by bilingual children or young adults who work as translators in their free-time. I have never been forced to learn the language, and truthfully, I cannot claim to love a culture in which I
canít even communicate naturally. Not only am I an English major, but I believe so deeply in the value of words and the rich history of language. By relying on my language and remaining in my comfort zone, I have taken the value of the Haitian culture and cut it in half. Language and culture are not mutually exclusive, and they never will be. They enrich each other in a way
that cannot even be understood while it is happening. Years later, words develop from events and events are under-stood only by time-specific words. Language changes over time, from place to place, and to assume that I could ever truly and fully experience all of Haiti while being less than proficient in such a vital part of the culture was naive, to say the least.
Fortunately, I also believe that love rescinds language and I have been lucky enough to not experience a true barrier until I pulled into the gas station, but if I do want to go deeper and if I do want to leave the boundaries of my comfort zone, I will have to learn the language. So this is my goal: before I land in Port-au-Prince this May, I will be
able to walk through the airport and communicate with every official that stops me. I will exit the airport and find the children whom I love so dearly and ask them to not speak to me in English for a day. I will experience Haiti in a whole new way, and then I will return to the gas station and find the woman with the huge smile and beautiful voice and thank her, in Creole,
for teaching me a valuable lesson.
Through the craziness that is to come this year, I will keep this in my mind. Sometimes it will have to be pushed to the back and other times, it will be my focus, but I will not return to Haiti without leaving my comfort zone. Let us all hope that I remember how I felt when I left that propane stop so that this goal proves more successful that the
silly goals of years past. I will never wake up to that first alarm.
Read other articles by Leeanne Leary