5 Reasons Why Bambara is one of the Coolest Languages on Earth

by phil on November 23, 2010

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Bambara is the most widely spoken language in Mali. It bears great similarity to Dioula, the trading language spoken in many parts of the Sahel, including Northern Cote D’Ivoire and parts of Burkina Faso and Niger. Like many African languages, Bambara is uncomplicated on the surface. There is no verb conjugation and there aren’t any of the articles that you find in western languages. However, as I said in my last post, any ostensible limitations of the language are made up for with emotion, body language and active listening, making the conversations more spirited and dynamic than anything I would hear in French or English.

Here are 5 reasons why Bambara is awesome.

1. My Mother, My Power

I said this in an earlier post about cousinage: the male and female responses to a greeting are beautiful. If you say good morning to a man, he will respond “N ba” – “my mother.” He is more or less saying thanks to my mother, I am here to receive your greeting. The female response is even better. Instead of N ba, females say “NSe” (like Nsay) – “my power.” The cultural translation: my power as a female always wins against time. I got goosebumps the first time someone explained this to me.

2. The Word for Big

The word for big in Bambara is Bele Bele Ba, pronounced Billy Billy Bah. Hard to think of a word that is more fun to say. Go ahead. Say it.

3. Left and Right

The word for left is actually a few words put together: “nose picking hand.” So if you ask for directions in Bambara and someone tells you to turn left, they are saying “go in the direction of your nose picking hand.” If you are going right, you are going in the direction of your “rice eating hand.” Sweet.

4. Greetings

Many cultures place a special importance on greetings and Mali is no different. This is a typical line of greeting: good morning, how are you? how is the family? did you sleep well? This will then be reciprocated by the other person. With the unique tones of Bambara, this exchange becomes an elegant call-and-response duet.

5. New Words and Being Creative with Old Ones

There are some words in Bambara that have been modified from other languages. For instance, cars are a relatively recent invention and there was not a word for them in Bambara. So they modified a word from European languages and created: mobili, pronounced mo-bi-lee. This is another fun word to say. When airplanes showed up on the scene, however, people didn’t make up a new word. Instead, they decided to call them “flying boats.”

A Few Thoughts on Learning a Local Language

My education in Bambara was stunted by my relatively short stay in Mali. What I did learn was enough to convince me that it is one of the more entertaining languages to speak. While I appreciated its aesthetics and occasional silliness, Bambara also allowed me to get a bit closer to Malians. The first day I started really practicing the language was on the roadside at lunchtime. I greeted the woman selling rice and sauce arachide, asked of her family, and if she slept well. Laughing, she responded to each line. Afterwards, she wore the most endearing smile, the kind of smile that will change your whole day.

Throughout this trip, speaking (or at least trying to) the local language has unlocked situations in ways I could not have imagined. I’m not just talking about the laughter, smiles, and new friends. I’m talking about getting a sense for how Ghanaians and Malians think. There are some things that cannot be neatly translated to French or English. If you can understand how a language operates, you are learning more than a means of communication, you are learning about a culture.

Throughout my trip I’ve come across people that have learned a bit of the local language, but are afraid to speak it. One traveler I met in Ghana at Green Turtle told me he just couldn’t get the pronunciation right. This is silly. If you mispronounce a word, what is the worst that will happen? The person will laugh or they simply won’t understand you. That is the worst thing that will happen. More likely, they will appreciate your effort to speak their language and they will help you pronounce it the right way. The risk/reward ratio here is favorably skewed. Go speak and realize 1) it’s not scarey 2) you will become more confident as you go 3) you will learn the language and 4) you will discover an invaluable connection to a culture.

Fluent in 3 Months is a site I regularly read. Benny Lewis travels the world, learning new languages and discovering new cultures. As the site says, he typically reaches fluency in three months or less. I love his site for his language-learning advice. When I have steady income, I will no doubt buy his guide. But I also love his site because he encourages a fearless approach to human interaction. His mantra for learning a new language: start speaking right away. Making mistakes is part of the process. If you have the right attitude, you can learn a new language, and probably a lot quicker than you thought.

Check out Benny’s site at Fluentin3months.com. His post on the benefits of English-free travel is especially relevant. Matt, a visitor here, has a great travel blog and recently wrote a spot-on post about language that you should also check out here at his blog 1yearsabbatical.com. His first point about understanding the context of a culture through language is what I’m trying to get at above.

To my readers with Bambara experience (or anyone who wants to share anything language related in general), feel free to add to this post in the comments. Nana Karabenta? Bintou Traore? I am curious to hear your thoughts, even though you are both bean-eaters. Actually, I take that back. I’m cool with the Karabentas. Traores on the other hand…

And just because:

The girl on the far right is a real rascal if you couldn’t tell already.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin November 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Do you also get asked to say the words you know in bambara all the time? I get that all the time in dioula and I usually go with:

Wee-a folla deni
Diarabi coumba
and sometimes: boboraba

But since everybody speaks French all the time, Im not really making much progress. Oh well. I got one more for you. What’s this:

Name nala.
Mala raw.
Niangi noss?
Boubar!

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phil November 25, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Martin, can you translate these? I’m very curious. Also, you are in Abidjan, or where? I fell in love with Cote D’Ivoire and will soon be back. How is it going with the second round of elections coming up? B well, Phil

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Martin November 25, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Wee-a folla deni: Little lier
Diarabi coumba: Stubborn darling
Boboraba: the buttocks

This is dioula, not sure exactly how similar it is to bambara. The others were greetings in wolof spoken in Senegal and in a few other places.

Im in Sweden at the moment, but I share your feelings about Cote D’Ivoire and will be back soon!

The second round, yeah well, I’m mildly pessimistic. But at least they have fun debates on tv. Today is the big one between Gbagbo and Ado and it’ll be streamed live on rti.ci. On http://afrobox.net/page.php?page=1#about one can watch it without the annoying initial commercial.

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phil November 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Haha stubborn darling, I love it. I am somewhat pessimistic as well, but I am not on the ground there. Were you traveling in Cote D’Ivoire or living there?

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Matt November 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I find the left hand right hand interesting. In Indonesia the left hand is considered the dirty hand, the one you use for cleaning your business end. So you never extend that hand or offer money with that hand. But they don’t have a cool name for it like “nose picking hand”. Your point on just getting out there and trying to speak the language regardless of mistakes you may make I think is key. We all learn by mistakes, I should know…I make a lot of them. It’s great to read about your language adventures. Thanks for the mention!

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phil November 25, 2010 at 2:19 pm

The Right hand for clean tasks seems to be universal. I’d be very curious to hear of a culture that doesn’t do it that way. Thanks for the comment Matt, your post inspired this one in many ways. B well, Phil

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Jessica the hedgehog November 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Count this post amongst the many others you’ve written which have us convinced that West Africa, in particular Mali, should be one of our next stops. Yay! :)

When we travel, we’re also huge fans of learning as much as we can in the local language. Like you mentioned in your post, it really does allow for more of a connection not only with the people you meet but with the culture you’re experiencing.

Happy travels!

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phil November 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm

jessica, that is so awesome to hear. I’m glad your digging the Mali content, and thrilled that you want to visit!!!

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Andi November 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I loved this post, because I love languages. This one sounds so fantastic!!! I hope you don’t lose what you’ve learned thus far.

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phil November 25, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Thx Andi. Yeah I’m going to see what I can do in terms of skype and a few friends who have spent time in Mali to keep it going. So easy to forget…

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kim November 24, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Hi Phil- loved this blog post! Why did i waste so much time in high school trying to learn French?

I love the left-hand, right-hand business. I’m in Cambodia still and studying Khmer- thought you would love to know that their direct translation for “how are you?” is “Have you eaten rice yet today?”. awesome!

I’m going to check out that “fluent in 3 months” site for sure! wish me luck!

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phil November 25, 2010 at 2:16 pm

YES thats what i’m talking about. That is so much better than how are you.
PS are we still married?

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Jennifer Barry November 25, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Hi Phil, I can tell I would really like Bambara! I was great at American Sign Language because I would get into using posture, position, speed, facial expressions and intensity to make my point. For example, the difference between a little scared and terrified is all in the body language. Definitely learning Bambara got you an insight into the culture that you never would have otherwise.

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phil November 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Jennifer that is so interesting about little scared, or a little terrified in sign language. Are you fluent in ASL?

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Claire B / Bintou Traore December 10, 2010 at 8:02 pm

ehhhh walai! traore te so dun… e be so dun! i ye sodunna ye! walai!

-bintou

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Dieneba December 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

nice site. I agree, i would love to learn Bambara because i love Malian music. it is also useful in many countries.

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irina May 27, 2012 at 7:03 am

hello! i have a favor to ask of you. how do you say “love” in bambara? not ” I love you” just ” love” .

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phil May 27, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Hi Irina, the noun for “love” is “diarabi”

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la vieille June 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm

N be dioulakan fo, which I consider to be a diluted version of Bambara. I’m sure you’re a pro by now….I love that blog!

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phil June 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm

ne be julakan fo dooni. jula ye bamanankan balimace ye :) You’re right they are both very similar. I find that a bambara and dioula speaker can communicate with each other without issue. Thanks :)

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Pamela August 26, 2012 at 1:22 am

Phil.

Hi my name is Pamela. Im a Returned Peace Corps Voluteer from Mali.
I find it funny that while searching Bambara stuff (to continue learning) I ran across your site.

When I previously left you a comment on twitter (again searching about Mali) just saying k’an bu fo, a few weeks ago. haha random

Anyway, just wanted to stop and say hi. Bambara truly is one of the coolest languages on earth. I think im probably the only person in Mexico to speak this language.haha

A reason you didnt mention (but personally its my favorite) is the blessings. I would get at least 10-15 blessings a day. I cant even describe how it would brighten my day.

Ala la sira diya
Ala ka keneya

:)

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phil August 27, 2012 at 9:34 am

Hey Pamela, thanks for the comment and I do remember your message on twitter :) You’re right about the blessings and wishes. I think I may have to amend the article and make it 6 reasons!!

Amina!

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AGBE November 9, 2012 at 4:50 am

hello Phil
I am very delighted in what you have done as research on Bambara language.I am also trying to write something on that language.i got my o’ Level Degree in ENGLISH LINGUISTIC at the University of LOME,before coming in Bamako.And i realize that their mother tongue is a fantastic one .i hope to get many helps from you.i am a Togolese ,even though i don’t understand the language i want to make the attempt.stay strong ,
yours sincerely,
AGBE

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