Understood without Translation: When White People Speak Local

Jul 24 , 2021
By Kidist Yidnekachew

It is a universal thing for friends to use a secret language, or one assumed to be not understood by other people in the vicinity, when talking amongst themselves. But there are many instances where this has gone wrong and people were left either shocked or embarrassed.

That is what happened to a friend of mine last week. She was talking in one of the many languages in Ethiopia while on the phone in public transportation. She did not think that the people around her spoke it – poor lack of judgment on her part. She kept pouring her heart out; oblivious to her surroundings.

The minute she hung up the phone, all eyes and some angry faces were on her. She was surprised; she could not imagine what wrong she had done. Then, one person turned his face to her and spoke to her in the language she was speaking with the friend over the phone. Her face turned red.

I did not speak the language myself, thus I asked her what the other person said to her and she just replied, ”I'll tell you later."

I could see on her face that she was embarrassed. Later, when we got off the taxi, she told me what that the guy had said for her to never make the mistake of assuming that only she knew a certain language.

This is a very common phenomenon, and this was not the first time I have witnessed it firsthand. While hanging out with my husband in public, I hear people say things to him in Amharic. They assume he is unable to speak the language as he is white. When he replies in fluent Amharic, the shock and surprise on their faces are priceless.

Recently, my husband and I were shopping in a supermarket. A guy standing next to him was complaining about how high the cost of goods is getting. He said he was now forced to become a vegetarian because the price of meat has gone up. He is apparently living a sugar-free lifestyle and forced to skip a meal or two. He was at the supermarket to buy a specific kind of diaper and wipes for his children.

“These foreigners don’t even have any idea about how expensive things are here," he then turned to his friend and said. "They easily get everything they want in their country for a ridiculously cheap price and they never have to suffer a day in their lives.”

But, although not born in Ethiopia, my husband could relate and has his own opinions about Ethiopia’s inflation. He addressed the man in Amharic.

“Your mistake was to think that someone’s skin colour shields them from experiencing difficulties," he said. “I've lived in Ethiopia for close to 25 years and inflation has affected me and continues to affect me as much as it does you."

The guy was shocked. He cracked a smile and said, “I had no idea.”

This embarrassing mixup is not restricted to interactions between Ethiopians and non-nationals. Another time, a man was cracking jokes in one of the languages about an ethnic group in a gathering and he nearly got into a fight. Not only do we have no idea about other people’s struggles but we also exhibit poor judgement.

Language, ironically, is a means of communication and understanding between people. It should neither be used to stereotype others, nor as a tool for speaking about other people behind their backs. Many people have similar problems, it would be wrong to assume that it passes right by them. It is through the use of language that we can get closer to understanding one another, and come up with ways to work together and address them.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 24,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1108]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (kaymina21@gmail.com)

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