When Westerners Imitate Ugandans

Back when we were in Pre-Service Training, we had a session called “Uganglish” where we learned words and phrases Ugandans use that Americans may not. Many of these come from British English. “Picking” means “understanding.” “Short-call” means “to go urinate.” “To flash” means “to call someone and hang up” (like paging, flashing is a request to call the caller back (so the caller will not incur the expenses of the phone call)).

But Uganglish is more than vocabulary. We posted the following in our first in-country blog post, “Three Months of Training”:

Throughout our visits to schools we heard several Peace Corps Volunteers speak in their best imitation of a “Ugandan” accent. Is it worth sounding more immediately familiar to Ugandans (if indeed an accent accomplishes that) if it comes with the cost of doing an impression of them? As a fellow trainee pointed out, aren’t we desirable teachers in part because of our native-English speaking accents? If we were teaching English as a Second Language in China, would we speak to a Chinese student in a Chinese accent? Another trainee contested that this analogy is flawed because English is the official language of Uganda, and not the official language of China, so if anything, it is imperialist to teach the American accent in Uganda. “If we want to integrate and empower the students in Uganda, we should use a Ugandan accent,” the volunteer argued. But if we were teaching English in Scotland (where English is the official language), would we imitate a Scottish accent? The accent feels condescending to us, but clearly it’s a divisive and unresolved issue in Peace Corps Uganda’s pedagogy.

One of the Peace Corps Volunteers who trained us, Carmen, wrote a blog post called “Introduction to Uganglish” approximately one year ago, around the time when she was at the same point in her service as we are now. Carmen describes the way Ugandans speak English in her Runyankore/Rukiga-speaking community in southwestern Uganda:

Uganglish borrows pronunciations from local language, mixing ‘r’s and ‘l’s and pronouncing ‘c’s and ‘k’s as /ch/ instead of /c/. Everyone at my school, staff and students, pronounce ‘accuse’ as ‘ah-choose,’ ‘accuracy’ as ‘ah-chur-uh-see,’ and ‘curriculum’ as ‘cuh-rich-ew-lum.’ ‘Mosquitoes’ is pronounced ‘mos-squee-to[s]’ with emphasis on the first ’s’ and ‘clothes’ is broken into two syllables as ‘cloh-thes.’ […] Ugandans also emphasize different syllables in words at times; for example, ‘realizing’ would heavily emphasize the first ‘i’ and tapering off with the ‘zing’ rather than the even way Americans pronounce it. I think it may be safe to say that Ugandans tend to emphasize the second to last syllable in multi-syllabic words.

…here’s an example of how I would speak Uganglish to my quartermaster:

‘Ah, [my dog], she is being so stubborn; she has been refusing to take rice. For me, I do not even cook rice for myself and I am cooking it for her. But she has refused. I am fearing that she is becoming somehow spoiled.’

Translation: ‘Stupid Kiro won’t eat her rice. I don’t even cook it for myself, just for her, but she won’t eat it. I’m worried that she’s become super spoiled.’

Carmen goes on to talk about how Uganglish has impacted her teaching:

…From a teaching standpoint, however, it’s a little more troubling because personally I don’t know how much of Uganglish I should accept from my students as a teacher of English and also how much to use myself if I am supposed to be here representing America and thus American English. I told my class that I would teach them English that is spoken in America and Europe, Western English, and though it doesn’t mean that this English is the most ‘correct’ English, it does mean that if they want to get jobs with foreign NGOs or even go abroad, they will need to speak Western English to appear competent and intelligent to those hiring them.

After a couple weeks of this, I’ve come to realize that my students don’t really care. They just think that I speak funny English and they continue speaking English the way they were taught. To be fair, they probably won’t ever need to speak Western English ever unless they really did want to work abroad, but the likelihood of that (especially at my school…) is very slim.

This whole thing comes to head when I grade coursework and quizzes. Do I mark something wrong if it’s simply how they speak in Uganglish though it appears incorrect to my Western grammar stickler self? Do I try to change it or do I leave it?

…This is all to say that I still haven’t figured out a happy medium between Uganglish and American English where my teaching and grading is concerned. Who am I to come in and say that the way my staff and students have been speaking English is mostly grammatically incorrect according to the opinion of panels and academics halfway around the world they will never know or care about?

When I first arrived in country, I was reluctant to alter my speech because I found it almost condescending. When we go to a European country where English is not native or even China or India or Brazil, we do not adopt an accent when speaking English. We may slow our speech, but we do not alter our intonations.

What I’ve come to realize though is that Uganglish is almost a language of its own, cultivated and evolved from the English once taught here by the British. In France or Spain or China or India, they speak and understand English more or less the way Americans and British do because they have had more exposure to it. Here, in Uganda, they speak their own brand of English, sort of like Pidgin English (which was originally created for communication between the Europeans and the Chinese), which borrows grammar and turn of phrases from their local languages. Also, while I declined to speak Uganglish, or ‘special English’ as my principal calls it, a fellow PCV came to visit who spoke very good Uganglish and my staff talked about how easily they could understand him. So, because I’d rather be understood and because it doesn’t offend my staff and students, I’ve begun using Uganglish when I converse with the staff or when I teach. My neighbor once heard me on the phone with a friend from home and he remarked that he would never survive in America because he had no idea what I was saying even though it was English and his English is pretty good.

Note: After sharing this blog post with Carmen, she had the following addendum:

I’ve noticed I only use Uganglish in the villages and rarely in Kampala. Also, I feel like me being Chinese may have something to do with people appearing not to understand me because once [a white volunteer] came to my site and spoke unaltered American English, and though I had to repeat his questions and explanations, my students were all like: we want to speak like him! Whereas they used to complain about not understanding me in class.

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We recently stumbled upon a section called “African English” in the Language Appendix of The Bradt Travel Guide Uganda written by author Philip Briggs (a white man born in Britain, raised in South Africa, and unrelated to Matthew). He describes Uganglish (without calling it that) and, as “African English” suggests, a general change in speech he adopts across the entire continent of Africa.

Although a high proportion of Ugandans do speak English as a second language, not all get the opportunity to use it regularly, and as a result they will not be as fluent as they could be. Furthermore, as is often the case in Africa and elsewhere, an individual’s pronunciation of a second language often tends to retain the vocal inflections of their first language, or it falls somewhere between that and a more standard pronunciation. It is also the case that many people tend to structure sentences in a second language similar to how they would in their home tongue. As a result, most Ugandans, to a greater or lesser extent, speak English with Bantu inflections and grammar.

The above considerations aside, I would venture that African English – like American or Australian English – is overdue recognition as a distinct linguistic entity, possessed of a unique rhythm and pronunciation, as well as an idiomatic quality quite distinct from any form of English spoken elsewhere. And learning to communicate in this idiom is perhaps the most important linguistic skill that the visitor to Uganda (or any other Anglophone country in Africa) can acquire. If this sounds patronising, so be it. There are regional accents in the UK and US that I find far more difficult to follow than the English spoken in Africa, simply because I am more familiar with the latter. And precisely the same adjustment might be required were, for instance, an Australian to travel in the American south, a Geordie to wash up in my home town of Johannesburg, or vice versa.

The following points should prove useful when you speak English to Africans:

  • Greet simply, using phrases likely to be understood locally: the ubiquitous sing-song ‘How-are-you! – I am fine’, or if that draws a blank try the pidgin Swahili Jambo! […] If you have already greeted the person, you’ll feel less need to preface a question with phrases like ‘I’m terribly sorry’ or ‘Would you mind telling me’ which will confuse someone who speaks limited English.
  • …Phrase questions simply, with an ear towards Bantu inflections. ‘This bus goes to Mbale?’ might be more easily understood than ‘Could you tell me whether this bus is going to Mbale?’ and ‘You have a room?’ is better than ‘Is there a vacant room?’
  • …Listen to how people talk to you, and learn from it. Vowel sounds are often pronounced as in the local language (see Swahili pronunciation above), so that ‘bin’, for instance, might sound more like ‘been’. Many words, too, will be pronounced with the customary Bantu stress on the second-last syllable.
  • African languages generally contain few words with compound consonant sounds or ending in consonants. This can result in the clipping of soft consonant sounds such as ‘r’ (important as eem-POT-ant) or the insertion of a random vowel sound between running consonants (so that pen-pal becomes pen-i-pal and sounds almost indistinguishable from pineapple). It is commonplace, as well, to append a random vowel to the end of a word, in the process shifting the stress to what would ordinarily be the last syllable (eg: pen-i-PAL-i).
  • …We’ve all embarrassed ourselves at some point by mutilating the pronunciation of a word we’ve read but not heard. Likewise, guides working in national parks and other reserves often come up with innovative pronunciations for bird and mammal names they come across in field guides, and any word with an idiosyncratic spelling (eg: yacht, lamb, knot).

In a conversation with us, a Peace Corps staff member recently advocated that the use of the accent by Peace Corps Volunteers is a sign of integration, and that to speak in our real voices implies that “our way of speaking English is superior.” The staff member asserted that there is a difference between “mocking” (unacceptable) and “mimicking” (acceptable), and that mimicking should probably not be attempted by Peace Corps Trainees (who have been in Uganda for less than three months) because they may unintentionally mock the accent.

Of course, all of these perspectives should take a backseat to those of Ugandans. How do Ugandans feel when Peace Corps Volunteers try to imitate their accent(s)? The small, initial sample size of conversations are, of course, inconclusive. Two different Peace Corps Volunteers, trying to maintain a neutral tone, asked their Ugandan counterparts for their opinions about “Uganglish.”

One Ugandan teacher said she approved of PCVs using the accent: “When you first arrive in the class, you can use that broken English. As time goes on, you can change to that real English. You learn that local language and then go on to another language, so [the same principle should apply, moving] from the broken to the real English.”

A Ugandan teacher trainer disagreed: “If you use it in class, even the learners will copy that. It’s not a good accent. They should not use the Ugandan accent. Us Ugandans, we also want to be like you and your English speaking, we don’t want to be left behind. When we get the chance of having you, we need to acquire the native English.”

From our own limited, informal conversations with only a few Ugandans in the central region about westerners imitating the ways in which Ugandans speak English, the following points have emerged:

  1. Uganglish (if that means altering grammatical structures and accent) sentences often sound like commands
  2. There are too many languages (and therefore accents) in Uganda (not to mention Africa) to be able to impersonate accurately
  3. Speak in your native accent is best as long as you are being a sympathetic speaker/listener (repeating yourself, rephrasing if necessary, using an appropriate rate of speech)

Briggs’s quip, “If this sounds patronising, so be it,” seems to summarize the resting state of the debate among Peace Corps Volunteers, Peace Corps Staff, and Host Country Nationals about whether or not to try to imitate the way Ugandans speak. The issue is as unresolved as it was when we wrote about it after our training six months ago, when Carmen was grappling with this issue on her blog a year ago, or when Philip Briggs wrote about it in his travel book back in 2010.

We welcome your thoughts.

Note: When we shared this blog with another volunteer, he/she e-mailed the following:

I think an important thing to note is the power dynamic between Africans and Westerners and how this plays into how Africans perceive/react to Uganglish.

Do some Ugandans simply want to say the “right” thing? Jobs are hard to come by, especially jobs like Peace Corps. Why not tolerate microaggressions to keep it? I would if I were them.

At site, many Ugandans accept it because isn’t white always right?

There seems to be this problem with patience and acceptance of differences when it comes to Uganglish.  So it takes you two minutes instead of one minute to get your point across. Aren’t you making connections and purely focusing on that person and what they want to share with you in that extra minute? Isn’t what takes place in the world of those 60 seconds of open, vulnerable empathy and a striving for understanding what we were sent here to experience?

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One thought on “When Westerners Imitate Ugandans

  1. First off, I want to be clear that I am not directly related to Philip Briggs. This is a very thought provoking blog on Uganlish and I tend to think it is one of those “both/and” topics. I grew up in Maine and had a thick “Downeast” accent. I lost it when I went to undergraduate school in New Brunswick mainly to communicate more easily in public speaking. At seminary in NYC, I was one of a handful of students (the others were from the deep South) asked to take a “speech” class.
    I would think that the professional role of Peace Corps teachers would be to speak in American English to students and colleagues. (Might this be especially valuable to students who envision studying abroad or competing in a global market?). I say use whatever language that seems most comfortable and connecting when you’re off duty.

    Liked by 1 person

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