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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.


Photo from Dragons Archive

There is an Albanian phrase my dad used to say when I was young: “Every new language you learn is a new face you have”. He was quoting an ambassador he knew in Albania who presumably spoke more than eight languages. However, as I started learning my third language, French, I realized that while learning a new language you learn more about your ‘current face’ rather than ‘add a new one’. While I continue learning more about the three languages I use more throughout my life, I never planned to learn Malagasy. I didn’t see a Malagasy face as useful in my life in the West and I didn’t think that it would do much to my current one. I was wrong.

When we arrived in Ambatimanga, in the Fi Hotel I entered the reception and saw their library. As I was checking all the books and saw that all of them were in French and mostly about agriculture and cheese, I realized that the only books that I would actually find useful were two dictionaries. One of the was English- French, the other French- Malagasy. I took the first one to continue studying French while in the homestay and the second to learn one or two words I would need to communicate to my homestay family. The first one was supposed to be used much more than the second one. Wrong, again.

I initially started learning Malagasy because I absolutely loved my homestay in Mangily and wanted to communicate with them. Fifa and Faneva were brother and sister, and both became my teachers of Malagasy. My mother, Neny, and my father, Rafael, were always there for encouragements and said “Tsara beeee!” (Very good!) every time I told them a new word I had learned. In the beginning it was words: “mituvi” (the same), “voky tsara be”(i am very well fed), “majzina” (night), “mangatsika” (cold), “isika” (us), “kitapom-bola” (scholarship) etc. Soon I learned phrases, and then phrases became conversations. By the end of my homestay I was able to tell my mother how her food was the best I had eaten in my entire stay in Madagascar, how the West buys petroleum from Saudi Arabia thus it is a rich country, how I study and live in Switzerland but grew up in Albania etc. The hardest thing to explain to my family was how I did not like eating ‘mufugasi’ and ‘mufusira’, which are very traditional Malagasy food items. I knew I had to learn how to properly phrase this so my mother wouldn’t get offended. “Mufugasi manana manaka bestaka, satria tsi tiaku” (I don’t like mufugasi because it has a lot of oil). As a miracle, my mother says “tsi tiaku mufugasi” (which means I don’t like mufugasi). This was probably one of the best moments of my homestay because I realized that me not liking a certain food was not offending to my Neny. Score, she was meant to be my homestay mother! More and more I learned, more and more I connected with my family. I didn’t want to be the foreigner guest who stays in their house and says only “Thank you!” and “Ajza kabone?” (Where is the bathroom?). Thus, my Malagasy improved!

Proving my past self wrong, I ended up learning many more words that I thought I would. Proving myself wrong for the second time, I also learned much more about myself by learning Malagasy than I thought I would. Learning Malagasy, I started noticing the words I used the most “aoriana” (after), “taona” (next), “rapitso” (tomorrow). They were a clear reflection of me, always planning the tomorrow and thinking about “the after” and “the next”. I’ve been told since young that “I should live the present!”. (The funny thing is that everyone who tells me this thinks they are the first ones.) I’ve been told so often that throughout my high school I always tried to ‘live the present’ and ‘enjoy the moment’ by excessively boring myself. Even before coming to Madagascar my goal was to “live in the present”. Learning Malagasy put a cap on this personal dilemma of mine: I can’t just live in the present, because I have no defined meaning of the present (as I see my Casio watch and seconds passing by, I get even more confused). I enjoy thinking about the past, working in the present, and improving my future; and that’s how it’s probably going to be for the rest of my life. I like living in the present, same as I like living in the future, because frankly to me they are not very different from each other. As long as I find time to go the sauna, eat dark chocolate, and travel, I am living the present enough to be happy. I will forever be thankful to the ‘teny Malagasy’ for ending this dilemma for me.

This was the second reason why I kept learning Malagasy more and more every night.

The third reason is that Malagasy is simply a beautiful language. My favorite word in Malagasy is “masoandro” which means sun. The word is formed by the combination of the word “maso” (eye) and “andro” (day), thus, sun is “the eye of the day”. Malagasy words like this fascinated me because of their artistic and visual values.
I ended up learning quite a bit of Malagasy because of my homestay family, because of the “live in the present” dilemma, and because it is a beautiful language.