Visions of Life

“A different language is a different vision of life.” ~Federico Fellini

Language, I’m good with it. Well, the English variety. Languages (See that “s”?)… not so much. I lived in Kenya for 13 out of 17 years between the ages of 6 months and almost 18… and I don’t speak Swahili fluently. At all. I am ashamed of that fact. There was a time, as a toddler, that communication with me was difficult because I understood bits of English, bits of Swahili, bits of
Kikuyu and bits of Kikamba. I didn’t know what I was supposed to speak and no one knew which language I would understand when speaking to me. (There's a story about me and my tricycle...) Then we came back to the States for two years and all that random “bits of” knowledge disappeared from my noggin entirely. In high school I took two years of French and then I took another two years in college. I don’t speak French. Truth is… I simply don’t have one of those minds that can absorb and make sense of languages. I’ve tried. Believe me. That is a power I want to have.

I do, however, infuse my daily speech with a myriad of words that seem unusual or even foreign to those around me. I have to translate for myself far too often. There are words from other languages that simply “make more sense” to me than their English counterparts. Most of those are actually just a lot more fun to say. Combine that with my penchant for communicating via movie quotes and I’m positively astonished anyone understands a word I say.

My kids are getting the hang of it. Many of my words and phrases now make sense to them. They’ve lived with me for 15 and 10 years, respectively, so they should be able to comprehend what I’m saying by now. If not, they ask. Last Saturday, while sitting in the cinema waiting for Toy Story 3 to begin, they asked me to list some of my favorite non-English words. Forgive me,
Cinemark Tinseltown moviegoers, for the pre-movie giggle fest bouts of raucous laughter, that came from the back of the theater. That was us. My list, in case you were wondering (or not), sounded something like this:

Oui [wi] = Yes
(French. Duh! Usually said word is followed by “Bob”. Movie quote: French Kiss.)

Pamplemousse [pɑ̃plǝmus] = Grapefruit
(French. Far more interesting.)

Inoubliable [i-nu-bli-ya-bl] = Unforgettable
(French. Unforgettable, indeed.)

Ciao [chow] = Hi or Bye…whichever
(Italian. You knew that.)

Inshallah [In-šā-Allāh] = If God wills.
(Arabic. Sigh… I want to learn Arabic.)

xaabxaab [hab-hab] = Watermelon
(Arabic. I was going to use the correct Arabic characters for this word and the one above because they are so astoundingly beautiful but I was concerned they would be terribly wrong.)

Choo [chō] = Toilet
(Swahili. Habit… laziness/one syllable.)

Tutaonana [too-ta-o-na-na] = See you again/later
(Swahili. Say it. So much fun.)

Kwa nini? [kwah nee-nee] = Why?
(Swahili. Again, more fun to say.)

Bas! [bos] = Enough! or Stop!
(Swahili…from Arabic. Technically “Basi!” because “Bas” can also mean “bus” but there you have it. There’s a funny anecdote about a toddler me, my father and a waiter in Jerusalem… but that’s a story for another day.)

Dudu [doo-doo] = Bug
(Swahili. Always a winner, that one. There’s another funny anecdote about a toddler me, my mother and an American church nursery worker… but, yeah, another time.)

There are more. Always more. I think most of us have an aptitude for adopting words we like better in one language than another. I will venture to say that it is a more viral phenomenon amongst
Third Culture Kids. Logical.

What about you? What are your favorite adopted words?

Photo credit:
Hishaam Siddiqi via Flickr.


  1. Beyond scatterings of Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew, and Ute, do things like "Shiny!" and "dong ma" count?

  2. Ute? Niiiice. I'll take "Shiny". What do I know though? I think "Dude" counts.


"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?" ~Walt Whitman


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