I Am Here

Our church has just had an International Weekend, celebrating the diversity of cultures and nations represented among our church’s number. As one who loves language and is fascinated by pretty much everything, I have had a cracking weekend – just amazing!

The church we belong to is a real inner-city church, and describes itself as a local, international church. It is a true microcosm of the broader population of London, with a diversity of language and culture that I have never experienced anywhere before.

On Friday, I went to help out at the church’s weekly coffee morning. At the early morning prayer meeting for both the coffee morning and the International Weekend ahead, one of the elders prayed that an Italian person would come to the church. For some reason, he had Italy on his mind.

Half an hour later, as we set up the coffee table and people started arriving, a woman walked into the church and stood awkwardly (without her cell phone!) and alone in the body of the church. Two women went over to greet her, and asked if this was her first visit to the Friday event. She didn’t understand what they were saying, because she spoke no English. She was from Italy. We were all wide-mouthed and blown away; an immediate answer to a specific prayer.

Her daughter-in-law arrived shortly thereafter and managed to translate for her. She told her mother-in-law the significance of everyone’s excitement, and the Italian woman seemed moved. When her daughter-in-law moved away, the English women tried to ask her what her name was. Using gestures that didn’t convey their question, the Italian lady responded by saying, “Oggi.” (Today.)

I called on my limited knowledge of Italian (I studied it for two years at university), and asked her what her name was. But I think I asked her what my name was. More accurately, “What do you call myself?”

She smiled graciously and told me her name. She beamed at the thought that I might be able to communicate haltingly with her, and I confessed my limited ability. I managed, however, to tell her how welcome she was and she smiled broadly. Either she was pleased, or it was because I might have said, “he is welcome”.

At our International Weekend, church members were invited to dress in their traditional outfits and to bring their traditional foods to share. I’m sure I’ll miss some out, but nations such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, America, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Scotland, Ireland, England, Iraq, Brazil, Germany, Iran, India, and Thailand were represented both sartorially and culinary-wise.

Reflecting on this extent of diversity I realise that while I am a lover of language, there is a lot that I know a little about. I so wish that the reverse were true, and that I could have had a decent conversation with Friday’s welcome visitor from Italy.

I also studied French at school and majored in it at university but, not having had the opportunity to work with the language, nor to spend time in France, my rusty and limited knowledge of spoken French leaves me little to say of interest.

I went to night school to study Xhosa when I lived in Cape Town. Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, and is indigenous to the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape (where Cape Town is).  It is difficult to learn for a few reasons: there are three different clicks that you use, and the mastery of these clicks alone is a huge challenge; the structure of the language is quite different from any other language I have studied, with its use of compound words being the biggest challenge for me.

It is a beautiful language and so many of its expressions relate to the culture and the nature of the Xhosa people.  When you see someone for the first time in a day, it is important to greet him and ask how he is. The answer is usually an honest description of how you are; I’m fine, thank you does not feature, as far as I know. It is possible, however, just to say, I am here. I love that. Sometimes I am just here, there’s nothing more to say.

I loved learning Xhosa, and practising it with my friends and colleagues. Like any other language, practice makes perfect and it is easy to lose the language if you don’t keep speaking it. So now I could have a conversation with you in Xhosa, if all you wanted to know was how I was, and what my name is, where I live and that I am married. We could then smile at each other, and look awkward. I could also tell you that I have two small boys, but that would be a lie. Truth is, I can’t remember how to say I have two young adult sons.

So many languages, so little time. Immersion in a culture is truly the best way to learn its language and learning the nuances of English in this vast and shrinking global village is enough of a challenge for me right now. Thinking any further makes my head hurt or, as they say in Xhosa, “Ndinentloko.”

Sunshine signing off for today!


33 thoughts on “I Am Here

  1. I love it that the prayer was answeredd so immediately. Surely that can’t be coincidence. And how great to be able to answer “How are you” with a simple assertion of of being and place–“I am here.” Happy Valentine’s day, Sunshine!
    Hugs from “here” in Haiti,

    1. We were truly blown away by the answer to prayer, Kathy – wow! And isn’t “I am here” just awesome? I don’t know anything close to that in English.
      Happy Valentine’s Day to you two too, Kathy.

  2. I love the idea of an international weekend for adults. Now Husband Dan could relate to your frutration about losing Xhosa because you don’t use it. He has spoken many languages but gradually lost proficiency in each one as his family moved from country to country.

    1. The weekend was a wonderful celebration and acknowledgement, Renee, and our church does it every year.
      I’m glad NHD would relate to my language frustration … I’m sticking to English for now!

  3. I am always amazed and impressed with people who can speak more than one language. I tried learning French in the 7th grade, but that was a disaster, and I decided at that time I could never learn another language. (I can still count to ten, though. Yeah, that should come in handy!) I know sign language. I can sign some, but I have hard time translating it. So useful.

    1. I’ve often wanted to learn sign language, Darlene, and I’m so impressed that you can sign some. I realised that unless I used it all the time, it would be another language that I know a little of.
      You never know when you might need to count to ten in French, though!

  4. I am so in awe of you speaking Xhosa! I speak French and Spanish and love the many ideas you can express in other languages, sometimes more effectively or subtly — or just very differently — than in English.

    As you may know, the French are very private about their homes and personal spaces so when you enter a room (a neutral word in English) in French you say “penetrer” which has a much more aggressive quality to it. I find these differences so interesting as they remind us that our language shapes our point of view — as does everyone else’s. And we wonder why diplomacy is so challenging!

    1. Well speaking Xhosa might be a slight exaggeration! I agree with you about the nuances of language – that to me is one of the most fascinating aspects of learning another language, because it’s such a reflection of and insight into the culture and expression of the people. It’s so much more than words that you learn.

  5. I like “I am here” too…I think the Canadian equivalent of that would be “Not bad.”

    My girls all did French immersion in school…living in the only officially bilingual province in Canada makes speaking French almost essential to getting a good job! Kaylee and Scott are teaching Elise sign language as well…at 17 months, she has more “signs” than words!

    I had never heard of Xhosa before reading your blog…I love learning new things!


    1. I can’t think of any English equivalent to “I am here”. It’s totally without good or bad reason; it’s just about being. I love it!
      Glad to add to your learning, Wendy! The “x” in Xhosa is pronounced with one of the three clicks I mention – it sounds fabulous!

  6. Sunshine, you’re so fortunate to be able to experience cultural diversity first-hand. For all the variety of nationalities we have here in the States, we’re still basically English-speaking people. I suppose that’s the lure of travel — allows us to come into contact with people who are different from us, people we can learn new things from. Thanks for educating me this morning!

    1. Thank you, Debbie – glad to be of service! London is overwhelmingly multi-cultural. Whenever I travel on the bus or the tube, or go to the supermarket or go to gym, I always hear a variety of languages being spoken all around me. Most of the languages are so unfamiliar, I have no idea what they are. It’s one of the most compelling and fascinating aspects of life in this city, I think.

  7. I’m so impressed with your language skills, Sunshine! It sounds like you’ve dabbled in four…have you tried learning others as well?

    Your church sounds lovely. Diversity is such an essential component of any meaningful group.

    1. Thanks, Maura. I can understand and speak a fair amount of Afrikaans (another of South Africa’s official languages – not unique to any particular region), and I am completely fluent in Shorthand! (I like to think of shorthand as another language!)
      Our church is wonderful; its diversity makes it so.

  8. I love that you know even some of a clicking language! I’m going to use “I am here” the next time someone asks me how I am. 😉

  9. Sunshine, a post full of sunlight from Babel today! My heart was gladdened to read to tell you the truth. I am not a linguist, but the charm of a language which acknowledges that a state of contentment is ‘being here’ is far from lost on me. Wonderful. Thanks.

  10. Ciao, Luce di sole!
    I’m certainly out of practice, Sunshine. You’re right that if you don’t speak on a regular basis, words fly out of your memory like feathers on the wind. I love some of the idioms in other languages that we don’t often have in English. My Italian favorite is il dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing – something we don’t “do” enough of here in the States.
    Tanti alguri!

  11. You really have a talent for languages!

    I am here. Barely. It’s been brutally hot here for the last couple of days. It’s interesting what you say about Xhosa people asking how you are. One gets that too when dealing with them on the phone e.g. call centre operators. I know some people get irritated by it, but I find it quite charming. Gives one a chance to pause and calm down before tackling the problem/issue at hand.

  12. What a fascinating post. I really enjoyed it.

    I could once speak schoolgirl French and immigrant Afrikaans but I’ve lost the ability over the years. Such a shame.

  13. In the first half of my school years I was enrolled in French Immersion, we learned math, science, phys ed – all in French. There was only one class, Language Arts taught in English. After a decade of not a peep of French to anyone, I found myself in Texas where lots of people speak Spanish. There are some similarities in certain words that I could pick up easily – however I did order “jugo d’araña” or spider juice for brunch one day instead of “jugo naranja” orange juice!

    Yay for such a wonderful coincidence at your church, too!

    1. That’s so funny, midnitechef! Did they serve you spider juice or orange juice? 🙂 Glad I’m not alone in using the wrong words!
      Yes, it was such an amazing thing to happen at our church.

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