Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Tsy miteny Malagasy aho. “I don’t speak Malagasy.” It’s a useful but unfortunately very true statement for me, and one that I’ve had to use a lot while studying abroad in Madagascar this semester. I’ve told it to children when they approach me in the street, and for all I know their responses could be anything from “do you want to play soccer with us?” to “you look really silly and tall.” I’ve gotten up to speed with simple greetings and exchanges, and can sometimes make a purchase in a store. Beyond that, I fall back on my French (or my conversation partner switches for me), which is also far from fluent.
A French colony until 1960, Madagascar is still Francophone and part of the French zone. France is Madagascar’s largest trading partner, and there are somewhere around 30,000 French nationals living around the country. French is the language of instruction in schools, government, and other official means of communication. It also links Madagascar with another part of the world. Fortunately for me, it also opened up a window for me to come here, since Swarthmore doesn’t exactly offer Malagasy 101.
While the French prevalence is widespread, that does not mean that everyone speaks French. Part of what makes Madagascar unique as a post-colonial country is, in my opinion, its shared national language. Malagasy don’t have to rely on a former colonial language in order to standardize or be understood across the island; there are Malagasy music, publishing, and even a blossoming film industry, to cite a few examples.
So while French served as a foot in the door into the country, it pretty much stops there. In most of my conversations with people in French, I’m aware that my presence is forcing them to communicate in a way they wouldn’t normally. Not to mention the fact that French is deeply entrenched in Madagascar’s colonial history and still colors social dynamics. To take just one example, I’ve noticed that people who speak French, and especially English, are perceived as more educated. This has effects on people’s perception of you as a person, your social status, where you come from, and their interaction with you. That dynamic is reproduced in almost every single conversation I have, particularly at the moment when we have to switch from Malagasy to French.
Learning Malagasy from French is far from all negative, however. Learning another language has not only forced me to think about my social interactions differently, but also simply to think differently.
Seeing a word like mpifanolobodirindrina (neighbor) is daunting at first, until you learn that its component parts essentially mean “the one over the wall.” This is only one of the ways that the Malagasy language helps me conceptualize social dynamics. Unlike most Romance languages, Malagasy articles are not gendered; however, there are incredibly specific words for gendered relations and family structure. For example, there are different words for the brother or sister of a boy or girl, and still different words for an older brother or sister. The sheer amount of words dedicated to describing the family is indicative of the great importance family holds in Malagasy culture.
Like some other languages, Malagasy sentences are constructed oppositely from English, which means I think about the action first and the subject last. It seems simple, and it is, but it also helps me conceptualize the order of the world in a whole new way.
To provide another hopefully illustrative example of an interaction with my host mother:
We were sweeping the floor after dinner one night when she noticed that I was particularly hunched over. While she often tries to correct my terrible posture, my excuse this time was that I wasn’t wearing my glasses and thus couldn’t see very well (which is 100% true). I asked her how to say that in Malagasy, to which she responded tsy tsara maso (literally: “my eyes aren’t good”). I repeated the phrase, which caused her to shake her head. “Be careful,” she said. “You just told me that you’re not a bean.” Gleaning from every teachable moment, she informed me that tsaramaso is “bean” – “they look like little eyes!”
Despite all my frustrations with speaking the colonial language (and then not very well), making mistakes always lets me laugh at myself, especially when my diligent teacher can laugh too. (N.b.: I have also been informed that my laughing is not regular laughing, but mikakakaka – an onomatopoeia for cackling or laughing loudly.)
I could go on about the newness and complexities of Malagasy or the French colonial presence that perpetually reasserts itself through language. However, both are ideas far more complicated than I could ever hope to fully address here. So I will leave you with a little story which, for me, encapsulates the above and more:
I spent some time tromping around in the wet rainforest of eastern Madagascar last week, as my group was on an excursion that included a visit to a national park. While exploring the town nearby, we came across some children who seemed like they wanted to share something with us. After some shaky introductions in Malagasy, they began whistling and pointing up the hill. They described in French that something was going on up there, and our limited conversation continued in French until I asked in Malagasy if we could go. One boy nodded and showed us the way through the rice fields. When we got to the top of the hill, we stumbled upon a dance competition-turned freestyle dance party. Using a combination of moves I could picture in an American nightclub and others I had never pictured at all, the dancers moved and engaged with one another and with the space, while American pop music flooded over the hillside.