doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: languages

UgLish lessons

The primary local language where I’ve been traveling in Uganda is called Luganda. The health care workers attending my presentations all speak English, though, to varying degrees. Even so, there are differences between the English spoken in Uganda and in the United States, just as there are between British and American English.

The longer I’m here, the more I find myself speaking Ugandan English — called “UgLish,” and with its own dictionary. People are more likely to understand me. And I seem a little less … foreign. At least that’s my hope.

Embracing and using locally preferred English words has implications for my research as well. Ugandans might better understand so many of the words and concepts in our teaching guides with some simple rephrasing on our part. Now that I’ve given these presentations a dozen times, I have a better idea of what needs changed to make this material more accessible.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard people here say, contrasted with what I would normally say at home. Some UgLish represents true differences in meaning; other things are simply words I’ve noticed are more commonly used here, but have the same meaning in both countries.

  • Observe. This means the same thing in Uganda as it does in the United States. But in my experience, people here are more likely to say “observe” when I would say “notice” or “see.” It’s a small thing, but I think making these small changes is important when you’re creating educational material for a specific audience.
  • Mobilize. When I was at Gombe Hospital, the administrator helping me set up told me she was going to “mobilize” the people to come. When I think of the word “mobilize,” I think of the military — mobilizing troops or weapons, for example. Here, it’s a commonly used word in everyday life.
  • Balance. When I first heard this, I was confused. “Here’s the balance,” my driver said to me earlier this week as he handed me the bar of soap I’d loaned him to wash his hands. After a moment of thought, I realized he meant “remainder.” The word “balance” here can also refer to the change you get back after paying for something.
  • Uganda’s version of a “rolex” — not a designer watch, but a delicious, rolled sandwich wrap.

    Rolex. My first trip here in 2016, this word mystified me. Driving down the rural, bumpy dirt roads, we’d pass roadstand after roadstand advertising their “rolex.” I knew this couldn’t mean a designer watch. Someone finally explained it to me. A “rolex” in Uganda is essentially a rolled-up sandwich wrap. Specifically, it’s eggs and vegetables rolled up into chapatti. I don’t buy the street vendor version, because my North American microbiome would probably cry “Mutiny!” But the woman who cooks at the guesthouse here makes it too, in a way that’s safe for my GI tract. And it’s delicious.

Of course, to really feel less foreign, and to really make sure people can understand me, I would need to learn Luganda. Not a day goes by without my thinking that thought.

That’s not exactly an option for me now. So I do my best, using a few simple phrases in Luganda, and tailoring my English as much as I can.

Someday, maybe I can do more.

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Parlez-vous français?

Trying to learn about thrombosis in French is pointless for someone (like me) who doesn't speak French. But for the writer and word-nerd in me, the foreign phrases are fun to look at anyway.

Trying to learn about thrombosis in French is pointless for someone who doesn’t speak French (like me). But for the writer and word-nerd (also me), the foreign phrases are fun to look at anyway.

The answer to the question posed in this blog title — whether I speak French — is a resounding “no.” The little I do know about French is that it is a beautiful language, one gentle on the ears, eyes, and tongue. When I hear it spoken or see it written, I have little idea what the words mean. But to me they are lovely words nonetheless.

This love of French words extends, I learned this week, to medical texts. Yesterday our class received an e-mail with this subject line: “Dr. Erkan’s Printed Material – The English Version is Now Posted on Canvas.” (“Canvas” being our online education portal.) I was immediately intrigued. This implied that at some point, a non-English version was available (clearly an accident), but had since been removed. A kind classmate who’d inadvertantly downloaded the foreign language version — in French! — forwarded me the PDF. I had already watched the lecture in English, and had read the English slides. So as I skimmed through the French materials, I had a vague idea of what I was reading. My fluency in Spanish helped a little, as both are Romance languages, with some similarities. This was not at all a productive use of my precious time. I had a test to study for. Looking at the French version obviously would not help. This was pure linguistic voyeurism.

My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech hockey player. More than anything, I was enthralled with his last name, which according to English grammar rules was mysteriously missing a vowel between the two terminal consonants.

My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech hockey player. More than anything, I was enthralled with his last name, which according to English grammar rules was mysteriously missing a vowel between the two terminal consonants.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this fascination with a foreign tongue. The signs were there at an early age, when I started watching National Hockey League games with my dad. It’s a fast-paced, exciting game, which helped hold my attention. But just as fascinating were the players’ names — especially the Eastern European ones. My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech who played then for the Penguins. I didn’t even really know what he looked like, as he was covered in protective padding and a helmet all the time. My true attraction was to his last name, which was seductively missing a vowel between the “g” and the terminal “r.” “How was this possible?!” the young grammarian in me wondered. It was my introduction to foreign languages, to rules so different from the familiar English ones that they took on a magical, mystical quality. I had to learn more.

But life puts time constraints on you. Fluency takes years of dedicated practice — you must choose a language to focus on. So I chose Spanish, and I’m glad I did. It, too, is a lovely language with curious and detailed rules whose application can make me giddy. Spanish is also highly practical in the United States, especially in urban areas like my former home, Chicago, and my current one, New York City. If I could choose another language to learn, disregarding practicality and difficulty, it would be Russian. It hearkens back to the genesis of my linguistic interests, which started with those Eastern European tongues.

I’m in medical school now though, learning a foreign language of another kind: doctor-speak. Fluency here is by fire and immersion. No time for nation-languages. So I must be content, at least in this season of my life, with things like browsing medical texts in French. And dreaming about how someday, I might have time for more.