Finding Humor in Language Barriers

In Liberia, the English language is like a child who emigrated young to the West Coast of Africa and comes of age with all kinds of personality. It sounds and feels entirely different than the family it came from. The English of Liberia resembles his uncle in the United States, but louder, swallowing the ends of his sentences with increased spunk. It is like an excited adolescent that doesn’t bother with formalities and knocks off letters it doesn’t need, but says exactly what he means, with ingenuity and efficiency. At turns, spitfire or sweet depending on what the occasion calls for.

Me: Are you having diarrhea?

Patient: Blank stare

Nurse: He be askin’ if you stomach be runnin’

Patient: Oh no

Me: Did you have your last baby at the hospital?

Pregnant patient: Huh?

Nurse: He ask when you had belly tha last time you go to the big belly hospital?

Patient: Oh no.

That happens over and over. I say a perfectly normal doctorly English sentence. The nurse doesn’t understand and neither does the patient. I repeat it to the nurse. She says, Oh. Rephrases it in Liberian English to the patient and he answers. I feel pretty uncool. The one country in West Africa where French is not essential, and I am still failing to communicate.

By Dr. Sriram Shamasunder

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