What if you could never differentiate between need and want? How would your views of the world change? I found this to be an actual dilemma as I attempted to learn Malagasy (pronounced “mal-ah-gash”), the local language of Madagascar. The English words for “need” and “want” are both translated to the same word, “mila,” in Malagasy. First, let me back up a little and give you some context.
I have been studying to be a conservationist for as long as I can remember. I took all the right courses, both in the classroom and in the field. I knew all the right statistics, how to catch and identify dozens of different taxa, but as any actual conservation practitioner knows, there is a large gap between theory and application, a lesson I would learn firsthand soon after graduating college.
I graduated from Emory University in May of 2011 and one week later I was in Antananarivo on my way to the field station for my first big boy job. I was hired as part of behavioral research team, tracking how black and white ruffed lemurs use fragmented rainforest. This was part of an initiative by the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, a local NGO trying to replant the rainforest and connect the fragments with community involvement. I tried learning as much of the local language as quickly as possible (if only to be able to buy food in the local market), but I as I encountered lexical problems such as the inability to distinguish “need” from “want,” I found my perspective changing. I was forced to change what I wanted to express and how I could communicate it.
Previous courses in anthropology have taught me how languages can shape how you view your world. For instance, many people are familiar with the trivia fact that the Inuit language has 50 words for snow. You may think that’s overkill, but think of how many English words there are for money: cash, moolah, bucks, bread, dough, and the list goes on. The point is that language reflects what the culture finds important.
Now we can argue whether thought informs language or language informs thought, but let’s table that for another night. What we need to think about is how this changes how we interact with people from other cultures. Conservation differs from many other fields of science in that it requires action from society. Regardless of whether it takes form in the passing of laws, community-based conservation, or even just wide appreciation for recycling, conservationists need to convince people that the environment is valuable. In order to do so, we need to understand what a community values and how they perceive the world around them, and my advice, learn the local language.
By the end of my stay in Madagascar nearly a year later, I would classify myself as proficient in Malagasy, enough to get by and communicate on a basic level. With an increase in language proficiency, I was not only able to order food more easily, but I found myself conversing with more locals who would not normally have any interest in conservation. I was no simple foreigner speaking French and looking for the beach, I was someone who took the time to appreciate their culture, their views, and their language. Only then can you have a chance at convincing people to start to appreciate the environment. You may never fully be viewed as local or an equal, but just by speaking the language, you may start to break down the walls between strangers and be less of an outsider. So after a long day of working in the field, chasing uncooperative lemurs, you can go to the local bar, sit back, and say to the shop owner, “Mila toaka gasy aho” (I need/want a drink).