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Le français, le franglais et le français congolais

May 2, 2011

Le français

DR Congo is a francophone country, which means that Jamie and I have had to do some serious brushing up on our French language skills.

I started with the more technical route, learning words like “monitoring and evaluation” = suivi et évaluation, “donors” = bailleurs, “care and treatment” = prise en charge, and “blood sample” = échantillon de sang.

Jamie started with the more conversational route, learning words like “network” = reseau (as in, there’s no network because the electricity is out), “reliable” = fiable (as in, do you know of a reliable taxi driver who won’t kidnap us?), “leak” = fuite (as in, could you send someone to fix the enormous leak in our wall when it rains), and “sink” = lavabo (I can’t think of any funny situations we’ve had with the sink…yet).  However, as soon as he started his job earlier this year, he has learned a bunch of useful technical words as well, such as “flow” = débit, “dam” = barrage, and “shipowner” = armateur.

According to our friend Paul, there are two French words that are the most relevant here in Kinshasa, and they coincidentally don’t have exact translations in English.  They are se debrouiller and bricoler.

Se debrouiller sort of translates to “to cope” or “to get by”, though it literally means “to disentangle oneself”.  This is pretty much the way of life here.  For example, more often than not, Jamie doesn’t have any power at his office.  But it’s no big deal, he gets by (il se debrouille) by making sure that his laptop is fully charged before leaving the house every morning.  Or, like we’d mentioned in a previous post, the traffic cops here sometimes don’t get there paychecks on time or at all.  But don’t worry, they cope (ils se debrouillent) by collecting taxes-on-the-go from cars passing by.

Bricoler is somewhat related.  The dictionary translates this word in English as “to tinker”, though I think a more accurate translation for Kinshasa would be “to jerry-rig” or “to MacGyver” something.  For example (Lianne, this example is dedicated to you and your brother), “when my car broke down on the side of the highway, I MacGyvered (bricoler) the busted timing belt with some chewed gum and a burrito wrapper and then drove home”.

You could even se debrouiller by bricoler-ing something.  In fact, this is probably very common.

Le franglais

After 7 or so months now, we’re both feeling pretty comfortable with the language- we can engage in conversations and can understand most of what’s being said at a meeting or a party.

We have a French tutor, Prosper, is awesome and helps us with our relative pronouns ( for example, “Don’t touch that!  That’s the towel on which the cat just pooped!”) and our past posterior/anterior imperfect conditional (I don’t actually remember what it’s called…) verb tense (for example, “If I had known that the cat pooped on that towel, I would have avoided touching it”).  He also tells us wild stories about DRC culture and history, some of which we’ll write up and include in a future blog post one of these days.

To be honest though, we do sometimes get by communicating with folks in Franglais (the love-child of français and anglais). Our friend David speaks fluent franglais- his seamless transition between the two languages really quite impressive.

Bon, on va au marché pour acheter ze fish and ze chicken, et puis on rentre at home,” he tells us before we head out to the market to buy fish and chicken, and then go home (“ze” = the, but with his French accent).

Or another time, “Les gens ici don’t live long time, because ils mangent n’import quoi et ils disent ‘God va me proteger’, quoi.  Ils sont very crazy,” he says when telling us about food safety in the Congo, and how people here don’t live very long because they eat anything and say ‘God will protect me’, which to David comes across as very crazy.

Le français congolais

We’ve also learned some words in français congolais (Congolese French), like nonante (ninety) instead of the French-French quatre-vingt-dix, and septante (seventy) instead of the French-French soixante-dix (although, to be fair, someone told me later that this is actually Belgian French, not necessarily Congolese French).

To address someone politely, you could call them Maman or Papa instead of Madame or Monsieur.  I actually really like this- it sounds and feels less formal than stuffy old madame.

Also, the French word for “office”, in addition to actually meaning “office”, is a slang term for a man’s mistress.  For example, a businessman would tell his wife “Oh, sorry- I had to stay late at le bureau last night”… wink, wink.  

Le Lingala

Although the official language is French, there are 4 national languages (Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo, and Tshiluba) and something like 400 local dialects within the country.  Most Congolese that we’ve met speak half a dozen or so other languages, in addition to French and/or Swahili.  Pretty impressive.

Jamie and I have started learning a little bit of Lingala, the tribal Bantu language most common around Kinshasa.  The Lingala spoken in Kinshasa is actually around 30% (my guesstimate) French words mixed in.  This can be confusing, because you may hear someone speaking and the language sounds familiar because of the French words, but then you actually try to tune into the conversation and find that you actually don’t understand.

Just like anywhere, I’d imagine, it’s actually really helpful to know even a just a few words or phrases in Lingala- we’ve found that folks are really happy to hear a mondele (white person) try a few words and it can turn a grumbly, skeptical face into a broad smiling one in a matter of seconds.

So far, we’ve got the basics like mbote = hello, sangonini = how are you?, kenemalamu = good-bye, and cocotil = coconut.

Lingala has a wonderful sing-song sound to it- try it:

moninga nanga, tikanga (my friend, leave me alone)

dongo-dongo (okra)

nalingi kosanza mbala mingi (I want to vomit several times)

The first two are some of mine and Jamie’s favorite things to say.  The third is from our lively Lingala book, optimistically titled “J’apprends le Lingala tout seul en trois mois!” (I learn Lingala all alone in three months).

One day we saw foreigner at a bar with an impressive mastery of Lingala language: he was wearing a home-made shirt that read Na ye bike na zali mondele, tikanga makelele = I know that I’m white, now leave me alone.

David cracked up when he saw that one.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. dan permalink
    May 2, 2011 7:19 pm

    I think of debrouillering (how’s that for franglais?) as muddling through, but with style, panache.

    Great post Jamie. It’s great what you and Katie are doing.

  2. October 10, 2011 3:45 pm

    Here’s another useful Lingala phrase: “Nelinge te” (pronounced “nuh LINGY tay”) It translates to “it ain’t gonna happen”…good for when ‘moninga naga, tikanga’ doesn’t work on panhandlers. 🙂

  3. September 13, 2012 9:03 pm

    Ezalí sémbó. Matándo malámu.


  1. Symphony in Kinshasa « Les Aventures de Jamie & Katie

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