A new language is always opaque in the beginning. Other people are speaking, and you understand nothing, but clearly they are communicating. You hear emotion, and laughing, and information being exchanged, but none of it is for you. You listen, and occasionally you even hear a word that sounds familiar. But no, that cannot be—it is just a word that sounds like a Spanish word you once knew. Or a Khiswahili word you recognize from those first e-mails you got from other ex-pats: jambo, or asante.

So it is with this Dholuo, the language of the people here on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. Everyone here speaks it, and they avoid speaking Khiswahili. They have to learn Swahili in school, but if they can’t speak “mother tongue”, they would rather speak English.

The first challenge is pronunciation. I am having a difficult time wrapping my tongue around so many vowels in a row. The sounds of “w” and “y”, distinct from “u”, all run together in my mouth. To give each vowel its distinct sound, to avoid blending them, requires unnatural concentration. For example, to say “Good morning” is one word, “Oyawore”, but it is like 5 parts, with just the tiniest bit of slurring together: o-ya-w-o-ray.

I learned to count to ten, and then one hundred, fairly quickly. However, when we came to the lesson on telling time I met my second challenge. In Dholuo, one describes the time when the hour hand points to two, as 8 hours. Six o’clock is described with the word for 12. And so on: three o’clock is 9 hours (actually, hours nine), eleven o’clock uses the word for five. Adding minutes is fairly easy in that you just add the minutes that have elapsed, but first you insert the phrase “gi dakika” to mean with minutes. (Oh, and dakika is a borrowed word from Swahili.) But you only add minutes for the first half of the clock—I mean the time from 12:00 to 6:00—is it still the first half if the left side of the clock goes from 12, through 1-2-3 to 6? This makes my brain hurt. I have written down how you describe the left half of the clock, but it has not yet sunk in. Suffice it to say it is different than the right half.

The third challenge I just got yesterday. It turns out that a noun may not be a nice, stable word as most are in English. I mean yeah, we add an “s”, or an “es” to make it plural, sometimes we change a spelling or pronunciation from male to female, and there are all those irregular plurals like feet from foot. In Dholuo, the word “stomach”, or “ich”, becomes iya for my stomach, iyi for your stomach, iye for his or her stomach, iwa for our stomach, iwu for your (plural) stomach, and igi for their stomach! I was thinking I was learning possessive pronouns, but it was all different stomachs. And yes, this makes my stomach ache.

Perhaps these differences in language set me up to misunderstand my tutor. Surely it is not just the clock or the time that we look at with entirely different perspectives?

Sadly, learning Dholuo will not help my French! Que lastima! (Oops, learning Spanish obviously didn’t help my French, either.)

3 thoughts on “Learning Dholuo

  1. As one who is “challenged” by all languages, including English, I’m fascinated and amazed by your description. Thanks for documenting you amazing story so I can share.


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