Life Unparalleled

Loving Life as a Foreign Service Family – Current Parallel 41° 23' N – Barcelona, Spain

“I am speaking English.” I’m not sure that means what you think it means.


When going over our list of bid options for our first post we were asked to come up with three things that were most important to our family. The placement committee might consider these when assigning us to our first post. Our preferences were as follows:

A high school for Dannica. Not all posts have high schools and she really yearned for that experience.

They had to allow dogs into the country and without a lengthy quarantine. This was for Everett, with Kiva being a service dog we really needed to keep them together.

Lastly, we hoped to go to a foreign language required post first. This would mean we would spend a bit more time in D.C. while Ben learned the language. It would have made it so that Dannica would have to only attended 2 high schools compared to 3 if we did a English language posting first.

We got our first two wishes but not the last. Lagos was an English speaking post meaning no language training for Ben and 3 high schools for Dannica. I must admit being the spouse I was a bit relieved that we were going to an English speaking post first. I imagined it would lessen culture shock, make it easier to get around, shop, and make friends. Most of those things have been true but I do spend a huge amount of time saying

“Heh. I’m sorry could you repeat that?”

I for the life of me can not understand most Nigerians with out asking them to repeat things multiple times. There are many cultural explanations for the variations from US English

  • Nigeria was a British based colony and became an independent republic in 1960. English is Nigerias first official language. So we already know there are some small variations from American and traditional British English.
  • Nigeria has a large population of over 190 million people. 1 out of every 7 people in Africa is Nigerian.
  • Nigeria has over 250 ethnic groups with speak 521 languages. Yes 521 different languages!!
  • With so many languages you would think that it would be easiest to adopt English as a means of communication between different ethnic groups. This has been attempted but rather than traditional English a form of hybrid English developed called pidgin-English. Pidgin -English often combines multiple words into one shorter word.
  •  The variants of English in countries where it has the official status and is not native to any ethnic group is called ‘World Englishes’ or ‘New Englishes’. You can see a more US regional example of this in Jamaica.

Walking down the street(shhhh yes I sometimes walk down the street) I almost never hear people speaking English. There are many local staff employed by the US consulate to manage our apartment building, security guards, drivers etc. even after years of working for Americans I still have to ask them to repeat themselves. I put this on myself not them. It is difficult to describe how brain boggling it is to understand someone who you think is speaking in the same language as you, but really they aren’t. I have had several international friends and acquaintances who spoke some English. We would have conversations in broken English. There might be some adjectives missing. The wrong verb tense inserted. All of this normal and to be expected. My attention to their body movements and inflection would increase to help me fill in the holes. It can be trying after a long period of time to attempt to understand someone but if you don’t understand them they will often choose different words to say what they mean, or point, or use other forms of communication. When everyone in the conversation supposedly speaks English there is none of that adjustment to encourage understanding.

Missed communication when you both speak the same language tends to follow this progression.

“Mystery words???

“Huh, excuse me could you repeat that?”

“Mystery words???” In exactly the same tone, speed, inflection, audio range.

” I’m sorry, what?”

” Mystery words???” A decibel higher. I’m not kidding. Nigerians speak so quietly I can never hear them. I think I must have hearing loss. The funny thing is when they laugh, it is the loudest laugh I have ever heard. Make you fall off your stool loud.

“Mystery words??? a point with the head” Yes pointing with their head not their finger.

” Yeah, I just don’t know. Can you tell me another way?”

“SILENCE” Other than speaking louder or someone just grabbing what they need such as the right amount of money etc. I have yet to see a Nigerian try to change their wording of a sentence to increase understanding.

Case in point. We have a great American club here that has a pool, sports courts, restaurant and activities. They have an American menu that is reasonably priced, with decent, and more importantly, safely prepared food. The most glorious thing is that they deliver. I know right, hardship post. Anyways, I ordered dinner last night for the kids and I to celebrate the first day of school. We made it easy. Five BLT’s with the fries that typically accompanies it. We placed our order and within about 3 minutes I got a phone call. I always expect this call. The online ordering system is a little bit out of wack so they always call to confirm the actual time we want to food delivered. I expected this and although I could hardly understand the person on the end of the line I reiterated delivery ASAP and hung up.  Five minutes later I got a second phone call. There seemed to be a problem. Finally after a few minutes and the phone being passed to a different employee I understood they wanted to clarify that I wanted fries with the order and not something else. Yes, fries. Ok. Two minutes later I received my third call. Truthfully I was at a loss. It took the phone being passed to two other employees before they finally worded the question in a different way and I understood what they were asking. “YES! I intentionally ordered 5 of the exact same meals. Yes, on purpose. No it was not a mistake.” Finally food success and these great people already speak better American style English than most.

Bless my sweet husband who does 90-120 interviews a day with Nigerians all of them hoping to acquire a visa. He understands far more than I do. Here is a quick video link I found on Youtube of basic Nigerian pidgin. It is only 2 minutes long so listen to the end to get the full effect of what I am trying to decipher every day.

Nigerian Pidgin

Nigerians are very friendly and willing to talk though. I love their greetings. In the US you might say

“Hello” or “Good morning!” or “How are you?”

The American response is ” Hi” “Morning” “I’m fine and you?”

In Nigeria it is

“Good Morning. How was your rest?”

You are expected to actually tell them how you slept. They ask about your family. Make comments about the weather. Or the date. To not take the time to pause and have a thoughtful response in return is considered rude. Like turning down tea in England.

One of my favorites is on the first day of a new month they say

“Happy new month!” Seriously how great is that!

They have some great phases like “next day” instead of tomorrow. Where we would say something is near they say “near far”. When you are asking directions they will point and snap once if the location is close and they will snap twice then point if it is further away. These actions have similarities to giving directions in American Sign Language which I studied in college. So intriguing to me.

In America after saying “Thank you.”  The typical response is “You’re welcome.” But the You’re, you are, is often blurred and emphasized as if they were saying your, possessive your. The end of the first word drops in emphasis.

In Nigeria after saying “Thank you” Often the response is “You are welcome”. Only when they say it the emphasis is on the you and welcome with a pause between each word and they look you in the eye.  Usually you are both holding an object that you have acquired. All four hands on the goods and they look you directly in the eye. They are handing you a gift and saying that You, as a person, are welcome here. It is difficult to describe but it is truly beautiful. It may just be this country new comer who is feeling out of place, but it brings a tear to my eye every time it happens.

“You. Are. Welcome”

(Addition by Ben)

Every time we meet someone new, when we first arrived, the other day in the market when people heard our American accents, or in shops, we are always greeted with, “You are welcome.”   It was really confusing at first, because we’re used to hearing that in response to a thank you.  It really is a nice sentiment, though, like the “Happy New Month.”   I met the Ambassador today for the first time.  He was very friendly, walked all through the Consular section greeting Americans and Local Staff.  He asked me for something I have learned about Nigeria, and what immediately sprang to mind was how friendly and welcoming Nigerians have been to us.

(End addition by Ben)

Although I feel like I am stranded a bit trying to understand a new language I love it. Nigerians have a gift for eloquent writing. They somehow missed the American memo for keeping things short and precise. It means that it takes me much longer to catch up on the local news but I adore it. Here are some examples from the Lagos State Government Facebook page.

“LASG goes tough on illegal dumping of refuse

The Lagos State Government has warned residents fond of deliberately dumping refuse in unauthorized places to henceforth, desist from such act or face the full wrath of the law.

This warning was issued by the Commissioner for the Environment, Dr. Babatunde Adejare during an “Operation Deep Clean” exercise which the State Government embarked upon, in collaboration with Visionscape, to rid the State of refuse black spots.

The Commissioner, who affirmed the commitment of the government to the attainment of a sustainable environment, frowned at the ugly development whereby some anti-progressive forces strive to frustrate the efforts of the State Government by deliberately creating black spots of refuse to give the impression of nonperformance by the government.

His words: “we totally frown at acts of sabotage by people who are bent on short-changing Lagosians from the continuous enjoyment of the dividends of democracy being provided by the Akinwunmi Ambode Administration by trying to discredit the well-conceived environment reforms of the State tagged, the Cleaner Lagos Initiative.”

Adejare, who recalled that current administration, being so passionate about the environment, had initiated reforms for a sustainable and more efficient system to replace the old order, stressed that Lagosians would be the direct beneficiaries of the new system aimed at eradicating diseases and creating wealth and job opportunities for the people.

The Commissioner said the “Operation Deep Clean” which took effect two weeks ago has accounted for the clearing of over 12,600 tonnes of waste from illegal dump sites across the State.

Adejare stated that the exercise had recorded successes in different locations across the State, including Ojuwoye-Mushin, Eti-Osa, Agege, Alimosho, Ojo, Ikeja, Badagry, Oshodi-Isolo, LagosIsland and Lagos Mainland amongst others.

He warned Lagosians to desist from indiscriminate dumping of refuse in their areas and urged residents to be vigilant and report anyone engaging in such acts as Government would not hesitate to bring the Law to bear on anyone caught working against the public interest.”

Here is another.

“Lagos CBD moves to eject street traders, mechanics

The Lagos State Government has given 72 hours quit notice to mechanics and street traders operating under the bridges, roadsides and walkways on the Marina axis to vacate immediately or risk arrest and prosecution.

The Special Adviser to the State Governor on Central Business Districts, Mr. Agboola Dabiri, who gave the directives recently in line with the present administration’s policy on the environment, said the State Government is determined to bring sanity to all nooks and crannies of the State by checking the illegal activities of mechanics or street traders.

He decried the dreadful unhygienic conditions caused by the activities of mechanics and road side automobile engineers operating under bridges, open spaces and walkways, affirming that no amount of resistance and intimidation by miscreants will make the State government go back on its resolve to clean up the entire Marina axis.

In his words, “We seek total compliance to this directive given to mechanics to vacate as there is no place for roadside mechanics, street trading and illegal shanties in the Marina axis”.

The Special Adviser reiterated the determination of the present administration to restore the original plan of Marina and its adjoining axis by checking the activities of street traders, mechanics, road side automobile repairers who have converted spaces under the bridges, walkways and roads to their workshops.

“The environmental abuse thriving in these illegal mechanic garages can no longer be tolerated which necessitated the decision to check their illegalities” he stated.”

The final sentence just sums up Nigerian writing perfectly. I love it, it makes me smile every time I read something. I will end with a photo that perfectly makes my point. Ben took this photo when he was out doing election work. This was painted on the outside fence of a local college.

In America we gracefully would write:

Be drug free.

Avoid one-nighters.

Don’t act cray cray.

No cheaters!

For myself, I definitely prefer the Nigerian way of writing.

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