Today I said “Hello” to the bag boy at the grocery store. He responded “Fine”. That is not an unusual response here, although it is typically those will less education who say it.
In Swahili you greet someone by saying “Habari”, which can be translated “How are you?” The response is “Muzuri” meaning, “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the person is hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with a truncated translation of “Muzuri”.
This is called “interference”. It happens when a person from a certain language is learning another language and transposes the meanings and structures of his language on the language he is learning – sometimes with funny results and other times with disastrous results.
When learning French Dayle tried to say “I’m full” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was very strange when I made the same mistake.
Learning language in a rural location in Burkina Faso many years ago had lots of similar moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning the local language, Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone present whenever I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter.
One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around you. That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for me. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits your ego takes in language learning do not cause you to give up. Beside, even I had to admit that that my language mistakes were pretty funny, although not until 10 years later.
(This was originally posted on a different blog. It was republished here in March 2012.)