Languages of Wilder Confusion

Most people around the world speak more than one language.

That shouldn’t be news, but in the English-speaking monolingual world, we may need to remind ourselves of this fact.

One language may be used at home and informally, but in a multilingual world, it’s useful to be able to communicate with people who speak different languages. People with different home languages might share a common language or a ‘trade language’ (especially for the marketplace). These are known as ‘languages of wider communication’. English is obviously one, and so is Hausa (used in northern Nigeria), Mandarin Chinese (for China), Spanish etc. Unfortunately while I can greet people and buy my tomatoes using Hausa, when I try to go much deeper in the language I come up against a problem. Any Language of Wider Communication is also frequently a Language of Wilder Confusion.

This presents itself to me whenever I try using Hausa examples in my teaching of linguistics and translation. (Actually it also happens when I use English examples too.) Is itace (dead) firewood or a tree? What about ice? What different words are there for kinds of cloth in Hausa? If you ask around you’ll find different answers. You could explain this as dialectal variation, and possibly this is the case, but that doesn’t necessarily help with the problem of trying to communicate meaningfully using languages of wider communication. What is fairly evident is that considerable variation arises because people learning a second language in later childhood or adulthood usually use the divisions of meaning from their first language.

Here’s an example. Ishɛ language has a word ushi and when an Ashɛ person learns English, they may be told that ushi is ‘bush’ in English… or ‘farm’… or ‘field’. Thereafter, when an Ashɛ person reads of ‘Moses and the burning bush’ in an English Bible they know exactly what it is, because they’ve seen how the stubble on farms or countryside (ushi) is burned after harvest. But that wasn’t what was happening.

This is a major problem when you’re trying to communicate with any certainty and precision. To use a language of wider communication well you really need very careful feedback to make sure you are actually understanding each other and not talking at cross-purposes. Otherwise you end up with languages of wilder confusion.

One feedback mechanism is to record all the mismatches we discover and learn from each other. So I thought I’d start a little series of blog posts on Languages of Wilder Confusion from what I’m learning in Nigeria, and particularly with Nigerian English vs British English. (Hey, maybe I’ll branch into American English problems too some time, but that is much better documented.)

Particularly dangerous are the words which just carry very different implications though they overlap in meaning. These ‘danger words’ are dangerous because nothing seems odd; they are perfectly understandable but just mean different things to speaker and listener.

Danger words:

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