DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Some Things Sound Better In French

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Some Things Sound Better In French

Thums Up Cola

Bilingual people are lucky.  Not just in all of the usual brain-expanding ways, but because they have options.

Sometimes, English just doesn’t cut it, and I wish I could effortlessly sort through my mental rolodex for a more helpful way to express myself.  Code-switching, or flipping back and forth between languages in a single sentence or conversation, is something common to bilingual people, big and small.

My bilingual four-year-old just did it about five times in the last two minutes:

These are my favorite chausseurs.
I can danse très bien avec these.
Mon ami à l’école doesn’t like them.
Je veux…ummm…I want le marqueur to make le dessin!

You don’t even have to be truly bilingual to reap the benefits.  Jacomine, from Multilingual Living, gives this example: “When I talk with an [Arabic speaker] in the Netherlands, we might both use Dutch and I might sometimes use some Arabic words in order to identify myself as a person who knows some Arabic, even though my Arabic is very poor. Code-switching is a powerful tool for identification.”

That’s more my style, because while I wish I was a “balanced bilingual,” it will never be so.  I can function in French and Spanish, but I think and dream in English.  Unfortunately, I’m stereotypically American in my relative monolingualism.  However, after three years in Congo, there are several French phrases I appreciate for their descriptive power.  I will share three of them, but with the disclaimer that I may have invented my own understandings in the midst of my adult-language-learner’s fog.  I also acquired all of my French in Africa, not France.  Apologies, and please feel free to laugh.

#1:  On est là.
This phrase sort-of-literally means “we are here.”  I hear it a lot around Kinshasa, usually from people who want you to be extra aware of their presence and help.  I like it because it feels more subtle than “at your service,” but still demands a certain degree of recognition.  It seems like a way to point out that you are offering time, skills or attention that deserves appreciation.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot after reading The Confidence Gap last week.  Women of the world: on est la!

#2:  Ça va un peu.
Sometimes you just aren’t okay, and it’s fine to say so.  I say, “Ça va?”, about fifty times a day.  The conversation often goes like this:
Jill: Ça va?
Other person: Ça va un peu… (“I’m a little okay…”)
Jill: Ohh?  Pourquoi?
Other person: (long story about worries, illness or other trouble)

When I ask someone if they are okay in English, the response 99% of the time is, “I’m fine”.  In French, although I sometimes I dread the explanation, I believe in the opportunity to truly express yourself. I find that I’ve been embracing emotional honesty more often au français.

#3: Bon courage!
This is an important one.  I can’t think of a way to tell someone in English with equal sincerity and brevity to “take heart,” “be brave,” and “have godspeed” all at the same time.  This simple phrase gets the job done neatly and concisely.  People have said bon courage to me at some of my most tender moments;  when my child was hospitalized, when I was facing a tough decision or when I felt tired and sad.  Somehow, the phrase bon courage never seems trite.

I always think it would be the perfect thing to say to a woman in labor – somehow expressing, “You can do this, but you have to do it yourself.  No one can help you, but you will be okay.  Have courage.” All that in just two perfect words.

Some things just sound better in French.

What do you think? Can you think of any phrases in languages other than English that use less words to express so much more?

This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Jill Humphrey.  You can find Jill blogging with Sarah Sensamaust at Mama Congo.

Photo credits to the author.

VIRGINIA, USA: Interview with Dee Harlow

VIRGINIA, USA: Interview with Dee Harlow

Where in the world do you live? And, are you from there?

I was born in Thailand and have lived in so many places that there is not one place that I can genuinely say I am “from.”

At this moment, I live in northern Virginia but it is really only a pit stop until next July when my husband and I, and our two kids, will go live in Vientiane, Laos for two years. And this is after having just lived in Mexico for two years…thus is life in the US Foreign Service.

What language(s) do you speak?

I speak Thai like a six year old, English like a native speaker, can recall some Uzbek, trying to retain Spanish, and now learning Lao.

When did you first become a mother?

I gave birth to my twin son and daughter the day before I turned 42 in 2009.

Are you a stay-at-home mom or do you work?

I have been a stay-at-home mom since my children were born up until three weeks ago when I started Lao language training at the Foreign Service Institute. (more…)

Dee Harlow (Laos)

One of Dee’s earliest memories was flying on a trans-Pacific flight from her birthplace in Bangkok, Thailand, to the United States when she was six years old. Ever since then, it has always felt natural for her to criss-cross the globe. So after growing up in the northeast of the US, her life, her work and her curiosity have taken her to over 32 countries. And it was in the 30th country while serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan that she met her husband. Together they embarked on a career in international humanitarian aid working in refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, and the tsunami torn coast of Aceh, Indonesia. Dee is now a full-time mother of three-year old twins and continues to criss-cross the globe every two years with her husband who is in the US Foreign Service. They currently live in Vientiane, Laos, and are loving it! You can read about their adventures at Wanderlustress.

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MALAYSIA: Less of a Baby, More of a Boy

Who knew time would pass by so quickly when you have a child? I still remember how excited we were when my little one started holding his head up. Later, he rolled onto his front from his back.

Pretty soon, he was pulling up to sitting. Then, actually sitting. And before we knew it, he was pulling himself to standing. Cruising came next. Crawling, walking.

And of course, talking. A milestone, that will take years to develop. One, that will challenge and excite all new parents. I’m excited about this particular step, as it means he’s actually communicating with us in a two-way dialog, as opposed to, well, just me talking to him.

We are a pretty unique family, I think. I’m Malaysian-Chinese, my husband is Australian-Libyan and our son is Libyan-Chinese, born in Australia, and right now, we live in Malaysia.

In this day and age, merging of cultures and races appears to be the norm, rather than the exception. This of course, makes for exciting times. Our son will grow up in a multicultural, multilingual environment, which I hope, will result in a well-rounded individual. (more…)


Alison is a former PR professional turned stay-at-home mother to two boys. Growing up in a small city of Ipoh, Malaysia, Alison left home at 17 to pursue her studies in the big city of Kuala Lumpur. At 19, she headed to University of Leeds in England and graduated with a degree in Communications. Returning home to Malaysia in 1999, she began a 10-year career in public relations, event planning, and marketing, working for various PR agencies and one of the world's biggest sports brands. After a decade of launch parties and product launches, concerts and award shows, international press junkets and world travel, Alison traded all that in for a life as a first time mother in 2009, and has not looked back since. Aside from writing for her blog, Writing, Wishing, Alison is the Founder and chief social media strategist for Little Love Media.

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