One of the most useful resume-builders I’m picking up in Lesotho is Sesotho. Just kidding… this language is spoken mostly only in Lesotho, and it will probably never come in handy once I leave. Here, though, it’s key to integration. The more Sesotho I can speak, the more I can communicate. Period.
Over the last few months, I’ve decided upon my own Golden Rules of Sesotho, based on hours of language class, successes and mishaps while talking to neighbors, and absolutely no additional research. If you’re interested in picking up a fun new language, take note.
Luckily, you don’t need much Sesotho for this one. A simple “Lumela Ntate” or “Lumela ‘M’e” will do the trick! After that, it’s fine to smile and nod at any further conversation, whether you understand it or not, as long as you finish with a “kea leboha!”
lumela – hello
ntate – father, used as a title for addressing a man
me – mother, used as a title for addressing a woman
kea leboha – thank you
One time in training, my friends and I heard a woman shouting from hundreds of meters away: “HEY! HEEEEYYY!” We squinted around, finally spotted the distant woman, and waved. Once she had our attention, all she wanted to say was “LUMELA!,”
Important note: when walking up or down steep mountains (this is, after all, the Mountain Kingdom), stop and greet… or fall on your face.
2. Learn your freakin’ noun classes.
This is a grammar concept that doesn’t exist in English, so it’s a little hard to explain.
In Sesotho, nouns fall into 14 different groups. The groups are based both on type of word (there’s one for people), spelling (especially the first few letters), and whether it’s singular or plural. These groups determine everything about the sentence, because each kind of noun corresponds to a different subject pronoun, possessive pronoun, and adjectival pronoun.
That sounds complicated, and I promise, it is.
For example, the Sesotho words for “mother” and “dog” are in different noun classes. So when talking about my mother and my dog, the word “my” would be a different word in each case.
‘M’e oa ka o mosa. – My mother is nice.
Ntja ea ka e mosa. – My dog is nice.
Lintja li ka tsa mosa. – My dogs are nice.
At first I figured I could treat noun classes how I treat gender pronouns in French: don’t worry about them and just guess. This works about as well as it worked in France. That is to say, people correct me all the time. Just learn your noun classes.
3. Practice the crazy sounds.
Yes, the Basotho will laugh at you when you try and fail to click. Yes, they’ll act like they don’t understand a word if your vowels aren’t perfectly annunciated. And yes, they’ll think it’s strange that you practice those difficult sounds, out loud, when walking alone. But it will be worth it when you can correctly pronounce Quthing (the Q is clicked!) or bohlale (the hl requires a serious build-up of saliva).
You can also gain a lot of credibility with non-word sounds. Annoyed? Throw in an “ah-chhh!” Satisfied? A drawn out “ooooooooh” will do the trick, best used alongside a slow nod. Thinking? Don’t say “um,” just make a popping noise with your tongue!
4. Drink tea. Drink a lot of tea.
During Pre-Service Training, language class was always accompanied with tea. Sometimes, mid-lesson, our teacher would stop abruptly because the water had finished boiling and send us on our way to pour a mug and fight over the best biscuits (I’m partial to the Eet-Sum-More brand).
Now that I’m at site, my ‘M’e has been helping me maintain my Sesotho. Once again, we never have a lesson without a cup of tea.
I don’t know what it is, but if you want to speak this language, you’re going to need to buy some Five Roses Rooibus.
5. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand.
My go-to line these days seems to be, “Ke bua Sesotho hanyane feela!” Or in English, “I speak Sesotho only a little!” I say it in response to quickly-spoken Sesotho with vocabulary I don’t know, in situations where I can’t reasonably guess with a “yes” or “no” response.
With people who speak a little more English, I stick to asking for a translation: “Ke eng ___ ka Sesotho?” I’m not great at remembering words I hear without seeing written down, so usually it takes a few tries for the new word to stick in my brain.
Everyone sees that I’m a makhooa (white person) trying her hardest, and most Basotho have been eager to help me learn.