Friday, 24 January 2014

What’s in a word… a whole lot of trouble when it’s the wrong one

The Roman Ruins, Tipasa, Algeria

I am totally ashamed to admit that I do not speak the local language, derja, even after being married to my husband for SO long mashAllah, and after living here for 10 years.  I loved languages in school and I know that I could improve my school girl French to a fairly good standard if I just put my mind to it.  When I speak in French it’s usually in the present tense – I rarely ‘did’ anything in the past in French and have very few plans to ‘to do’ anything in the future. In fact I never live so much in the present as I do when speaking French.  The reason why I won’t  ‘put my mind to it’ is because I really want to spend that time learning Arabic and derja, the last of which is not a written language and is an Arabic local dialect that includes some French, with a smidgen of the Italian and Spanish languages thrown in for good measure.  As a result, my French has deteriorated further to the point that I use Arabic for most nouns and a lot of other words, but still can’t string a sentence together in Arabic so I use the French words to fill in the gaps. Khalota – this what the Algerians call a mixture and usually refers to a meal of leftovers and accurately describes my awful French and even worse Arabic or derja. 

I need to learn a language in a structured way and cannot really pick it up just by listening to it, believe me I’ve tried.  I sit and listen to my husband’s family talking and I really try to pick up words here and there, and, sometimes I do (and usually get the total wrong gist of what they’re saying), but more often than not it sounds like they are making it all up as they go along with a lot of throat clearing in the process.  And, as derja is not a written language this makes learning it, for me, anyway very difficult.  In addition I think that the very thing that, in many ways has helped me enormously here, my poor French, is also the very same thing that has handicapped me because instead of picking up the local lingo, I’ve always lapsed back into my awful French to find the words I need.  I know it’s possible to learn derja because I have friends who speak it, but those who do have usually either lived with their husband’s family for a while, or spent a lot of time with them and with Algerians in general.  Also, a lot of the time, though not always, their own children do not speak English, or do not speak it very well, and this was something I didn’t want for my children.  I could get all high and mighty and say I sacrificed my derja for my children’s English but that would be a load of poppycock, as I know it’s possible to do both – learn the local dialect and maintain your children’s English language skills.

It doesn’t help that, when I do attempt to speak what little I have of it, I make catastrophic mistakes.  We visited my husband’s sister-in-law who had another guest, and, while most Algerians are quite friendly even with all my communication problems, this particular one, though not exactly hostile wasn’t particularly friendly either.  After some time she asked my eldest daughter, Sarah, if I spoke the language, and then I realized that she assumed that I was being stuck-up, so understanding her question I tried with my awful French, tiny bit of derja and the help of Sarah, to explain some of the mistakes I had made while trying to speak this language of theirs.  For example the time when I tried it out with my children and told them that it couldn’t be that hard to speak as they spoke a mixture of languages, to which my son put his hands up to his bright red face and moaned, ‘Oh Mum!!!!  D’ONT use THAT word PLEASE!’.  Oh my God, what HAD I said!  It seems that, instead of using the word, ‘khalota’ I had actually used the word ‘kilota’ which means knickers!  I was able to use this particular blooper to my advantage, however, when some time later, same said son decided, while my husband was abroad, that he would just take a day off school.  I told him that was fine with me, that I would go to the school and explain that ‘she (I’m always confusing ‘he’ and ‘she’ in Arabic) could not come to school as she had a ‘knickers’ of sicknesses.  I never heard another word about skipping school, because it seems that there is a worse fate than school….. even in Algeria. 

Another slipup of mine was merely a potential gaffe as only my youngest daughter witnessed it.  We had gone to the market to buy some vegetables and I asked my daughter to ask the seller for the vegetables I wanted, and I used the Arabic words I had learnt.  Now, if there is one thing I learnt fairly quickly in derja, it’s the name of anything connected to food, so I thought I had a handle on the vegetables.  When it came to onions my daughter looked at me very strangely (even more so than usual), and asked me to repeat myself, which made me think and then slowly realize that, instead of asking for a kilo of onions, ‘bsel’, I had actually asked her for a kilo of ‘zbel’….. rubbish!

And I still have problems with ‘zkara’ which is when someone does something out of pure spite, and the word ‘shkara’ meaning bag and always used when asking for milk as it comes in one.  I’m always so afraid that I will ask for a zkara of milk so I just leave the word out altogether to be on the safe side.  My final example of my blundering forays into the Algerian dialect of derja is the word for sorry.  I remember driving one night and, on coming to a police checkpoint, I forgot to dim my lights, to which the poor blinded policeman gestured me to do so.  As I drove past I said ‘simhaili’ which is sorry… to a female!  It should have been ‘smahili’.  Easily confused don’t you think?

As my husband’s sister-in-law’s guest wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes, she suggested with some sympathy that maybe it was a good idea for me not to try to speak the language, after all.
El Aurassi, hotel, overlooking the Port of Algiers

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