How do you say…?

One of the things that all expats experience at some level is a language barrier. Luckily, when I lived in Japan, I didn’t struggle too much because I could speak Japanese (though I could barely read or write it). Living in the Rainbow Nation now, with its 11 (!) national languages and English being one of them, has also been relatively incident-free. You’re wondering what the other 10 languages are and hoping that you won’t have to Google them, aren’t you?

Here you go:
Northern Sotho
Southern Ndebele


English is the most commonly used language in government, business, and commerce here, but in terms of the percentage of South Africans who call it their mother tongue, it comes in at 4th place with 9.6% of the population (according to the 2011 census). The language that is most commonly spoken at home? Zulu, with 22.7% calling it their mother tongue.

In general, I have had no trouble communicating with people here, though I’m still sometimes thrown by a thick accent that renders familiar words into something completely different for me. The funny thing is, I’M the one with the “accent” here. I remember being at the local Pick ‘n Pay grocery store a month or two ago, where the bagger at the cashier said to me “Oh, you have a different accent!”. I had to pause for a second to realize what she had said, and then replied that I was from the US.

(A few years back when I was just here for a visit, I tried to order a glass of water at a restaurant. The server just couldn’t understand what I was saying, as I repeated “wa-ter” over and over again in my American accent. Finally, a family member piped in and said “wah-tah” and the server’s face immediately lit up with understanding.)

What has thrown me for a loop, though, is Afrikaans. An also commonly used language in South Africa, the word structure and pronunciation of it has me completely baffled and struggling to understand it. If I see something in French, Italian or Spanish, I can usually figure out the pronunciation and possibly the general meaning. Afrikaans, though? A completely different world that has me stumped. Let me tell you about my little run-in with this tricky language that has my in-laws still joking about it to this day…

My husband and I came to visit his family here over the 2012 Christmas holiday. It was the nice warm summer season, and we were staying at his mother’s house. As we were sitting around in the afternoon, I heard a tinkling of music that sounded both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It hit me – “Is that an ice cream truck??” I asked my husband excitedly. (Because, you know, that’s a completely normal reaction for a 30 year old. Don’t tell me that you New Yorkers don’t feel just a tingle of excitement when you hear the Mister Softee truck coming down the block, playing that little jingle in the mid-summer swelter.)

Anyway, my husband confirmed that it was an ice cream truck, so I went outside to see what this one looked like. I think it’s interesting to see how different countries interpret things. It was a small little truck, a little dingy looking, with a hand-painted sign on it that said “ROOMYS”. I went back inside to report my findings.

“It’s called ‘Roomys’, babe,” I announced to my husband, thinking that he might start reminiscing about his childhood and how the Roomys truck has been around since he was a kid.

Instead, he burst out laughing, shaking his head.

“It’s not called ‘Roomys’….it’s ‘room ys’ and it’s Afrikaans for ‘ice cream!”

Still laughing later on, he shared this story with his family. They all had a good chuckle at the unexpected interpretation of words that were so common to them. They have now adopted to calling ice cream “roomys” and will still tease me about it, asking if I want roomys for dessert. I could feel stupid and embarrassed about this silly mistake but instead, I’d rather laugh about it. After all, it makes for a fun little story, doesn’t it?

Moral of the story – when you’re living in a different country, you’re bound to make mistakes, whether it’s not understanding the language or committing a cultural faux pas. You can only do so much preparation and learning ahead of time. The rest, you have to learn as you go, and not beat yourself up about the mistakes that you’ve made. It happens to the best of us and it keeps you humble and with an open mind.


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