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. Bambara is uncomplicated on the surface. There is no verb conjugation and there aren’t an excessive number of articles. Despite this, it is an incredibly rich language with deep cultural undertones integrated throughout (see my post about visiting Fana for more on these cultural undertones). It is also a tonal language, which adds another layer of complexity.
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.
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.