After 7 months of intensive study, French satisfactorily came to an end, (Merci à Dieu!) and our six week Creole course is now in full swing.
While learning just one new language was intellectually stretching, adding a second is a crazy experience. I feel like I’m trying to complete complex gymnastics routines in slow motion, with thoughts going something like, “Now is this where I do a back flip or a hand-spring? And wait, what’s a hand-spring, anyway??” – all while I’m getting out a few words.
Contrary to popular belief Creole is not a pidgin (a simplified version of French), but a completely separate language with its own grammar. While about 90% of the vocabulary is based on 18th Century French, the language also is influenced by Spanish, Portuguese, and West African languages – and more recently, English. The African slaves which the French brought to Haiti were from different tribes and thus spoke different languages. One theory is that Creole evolved as the slaves sought to mimic French and communicate amongst themselves.
And this is where the mental gymnastics come in. To me, the grammar structures are more similar to English than to French, so sometimes I find myself thinking of a phrase in English word order, adding French vocab and then saying it in Creole. Right, someday soon hopefully I’ll simplify the routine and just start with that last step!
The best thing about learning Creole (aside from the fact that David and I are in class together) is that we aren’t just learning a language, we’re learning a culture. In French, we were learning a standardized and highly formal version of the language which could be spoken from France to Mali. Since the French students were headed to different countries, there wasn’t really one ‘culture’ to focus on. On the other hand, Creole and Haitian culture can’t be separated; the very language was born out of Haiti’s unique history of struggle and victory. Creole is learned through listening to music, reading folklore, memorizing proverbs, and laughing along with jokes and parables. Yes, an excellent reprieve from French grammar books! (Although I honestly admit that sometimes my type-A personality gets a bit panicky without the visual progress of completed workbook pages…)
Another great thing is the laid-back environment of the Creole Department. One of my French classmates joked that learning French at FSI was like 4 years in the White House, you emerge skinnier and with grey hair. As you might imagine, this is nothing like the Haitian learning environment where the theme is “Tet-fret!” (literally – cool head, or don’t worry!) and “Tout bagay anform!” (everything’s ok.)
Ti pay ti pay zwazo fé nich li (Creole)
Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. (French)
Little by little the bird builds its next.