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Limiting Linguistics

Limiting Linguistics

TANZANIA | Thursday, 15 May 2014 | Views [112] | Scholarship Entry

Foreign languages have never been my forte; none less so than Swahili, epitome of African languages, with all its clicks and hisses and various other vocal pyrotechnics.

I remember one particular linguistically nightmarish encounter in which my dismal cross-language skills came to the fore in an embarrassingly blatant fashion.

When one finds oneself stranded on the barren slopes of Kilimanjaro, kilometres away from the nearest person with a decent grasp of English, what does one do?

I would have highly appreciated the answer materialising out of the thin, high-altitude African air, so particularly unimpressed was I with my current situation. It hardly gets less desirable than splitting off from your hiking group, with all the reassurance of the expert climbers safely within arm’s reach (in a literal sense; they climb on either side of you, sandwiching you like – well, not quite sardines, but definitely like the inexperienced tourist burden you are.)

The air was inhumanely frigid and the surrounding mountainside deathly silent as I collapsed on a rock to ponder my options. My visibility was down to about ten metres. The impregnable wall of fog surrounding me was more than a tad intimidating. Spectre-like shapes whirled around in the mist. The vista, previously exquisite with dazzling sunshine, had only been visible for a few minutes before the impertinent clouds realised their mistake and came haring back to block my view, which is generally their goal in life.

An apparent saviour came striding into view, humming. I decided to embark on the risky – and, in retrospect, inevitably flawed – endeavour to engage in Swahili:
“How are you doing?”
“Well, and you?”

Unfortunately, the conversation then came to a screeching halt as the extent of my useful Swahili was fatally limited.

This whole encounter’s embarrassment would have been lessened save for the fact that the porter was regarding me with a rather expectant gaze. Being all out of tricks – indeed, having had very few in the first place – I just grinned at him in a most idiotic fashion and then, overcome, took to my heels, concluding that little experience and getting thoroughly lost before eventually reconnecting with the group.

It is a memory that I still chortle at, yet at the time and in the brief future thereafter, the very recollection of it would overwhelm me with a strong urge to lash out at the nearest wall. (Turns out that’s a rather hazardous thing to do.)

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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