Eighteen Months In

I am the most fortunate of humans

stephen matlock
5 min readSep 20, 2023


Eighteen months since I started learning Haitian Creole. I have been extraordinarily blessed/fortunate/lucky to have had just the right sources at the right time in the journey, from Duolingo ( Lanfe Douwolingo!) as the first steps to get a basic comprehension of simple grammar, spelling, and pronunciation, to several instructors that just seemed to become available at the right time when I needed them. Anchley was there (and is still my primary instructor) to help me through a comprehensive tutorial for first-year students, then came Jean Junior in Haiti with his extraordinary connections to speak with people in Haiti and get a sense of how to have a conversation, to Joseph with his rigorous approach to grammar, and now with Jhus, who will not let me slide by with a single mispronunciation in my conversations and lessons.

I sometimes fear that I am tiresome to my instructors. I feel as if I am still a man of slow and halting tongue who is almost incapable of learning something as complex as a new language. There is just so much that is not understandable on the surface. Even a children’s book of stories (NAN JADEN AMONI, IN THE GARDEN OF HARMONY) defeats me not because I don’t understand the words or grammar, but because so much of Haitian Creole is idioms and culturally informed context. My poor instructor who has me translate on the fly has to stop me after every phrase to tell me “Well, yes, that’s what the words say, but what it means is this…” and then I have yet another point of cultural or historical information to absorb and put into my notebook of “Haitian Phrases That’d You’d Never Guess the Meaning Of,” a book that has about 6,000 pages now.

Granted, English is also constructed in the same way. What we learn in elementary school about spelling and grammar is based upon the simplest of ideas that are easily grasped so that the young student can think about how the text is constructed rather than becoming frustrated by an idiom or illustration that they might not yet understand. “See Spot run” takes little effort to understand, so the student can focus on the task of reading and not so much on “is ‘Spot’ here an idiom or illustration about how a defect can appear to take all our attention during an event, and as a way to show us that we can’t really enjoy the moment when we look only for what went wrong rather than just being in the moment?”

Six-year-olds don’t need to think about that, and instead they look at just spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. And pleasant pictures.

These “elementary” children’s books that I’m reading are a little like this, but they are (a) designed for the more advanced child, perhaps those who are eight or even nine years old, who (b) has been living in the context of Haitian culture and family so that the idioms are absorbed immediately because Tonton Mak or Matant Mirlande tell them wonderful stories in their lakou where they all live in close proximity with one another.

Of course they know what “ ale nan peyi san chapo” means because it’s a familiar idiom for someone who is laid out in a coffin with no room for a hat. But I’m stumped, and I’m trying to think if this is a literal description (“Is there a country where people just don’t wear hats?”) or figurative (“Is this something to do with people who do not respect others by wearing what’s common?”). I don’t see that this is referring to something related to the fear of death or doom. So I read a sentence or paragraph, get many things entirely wrong, and just sit there, puzzled. What is even going on here?

Every paragraph I read and translate is like this:

TEACHER: “Do you know what it means, what you just said?”

ME: (innocently) “Well, sure, it means < repeats the words from the sentence in Haitian Creole as translated into English word-for-word and then an approximate grammatically correct English paraphrase>.”

TEACHER: (laughs) “No, not even close.”

But on the other hand — my gosh, I can read kreyòl and get the gist of it, and sometimes I can translate an idiomatic sentence into idiomatic English. It’s those moments where I feel like I’m flying.

It comes in jumps and starts where I just somehow click into the grove and I read, and it flows almost like it’s language and not just clusters of characters representing sounds. It’s a good feeling.

I do feel stumped, however, in that I don’t know how to get to the next level, which I think is being in an immersive setting. It’s true that I do speak about once a week with my first instructor, and it’s a solid hour of conversation on topics he picks that I am always unprepared for, so I don’t have any way to check out the relevant vocabulary beforehand. (About ten or fifteen minutes of this I will always burst out with something like “how on earth did we get to this point where we are talking about the way to convert metric to the imperial system?” I get asked these questions, and I start answering, and soon I am in the middle of a desert of no words and no grammar.)

As much as this is good for me, I need more of it. I need to be speaking/listening (not reading/writing) far more than I am currently doing.

I try with my online teachers but they are either unavailable outside classroom hours (they are professional instructors who are busy with students) or they are in Haiti with undependable connections and unplanned demands upon their times with family or work or friends. Neither of these resources are being unfair to me, of course, and I am not presuming that they should just be available.

What I need is more of the unplanned conversations and instruction and correction that come from people willing to listen to me, to talk with me, and to help me understand the language because they want me to understand them.

This is not a complaint! I am happy with what I have! I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have the resources that I have through all that is available from YouTube, Duolingo (Lanfe Douwolingo!), instructors, media, books, magazines, children’s stories, and the like. I just need that interaction with native speakers who will help me where I’m at, and not assume that I’m unwilling to learn or that I am somehow far more advanced than I really am because I know a few things.

Well, I will continue my journey. It’s been a wonderful adventure that not only has helped open up a language and a culture and a people I never knew before, but also has changed me in how I see the world and understand those who live in. I am not the person I was before, living in America thinking so little of the world I didn’t see. In some ways I’ve adopted the eyes of someone seeing America from the outside, seeing the culture and politics and economy from the viewpoint of people who are bracing themselves for the next destructive impulse that derives from the desire to “help.”

So, onward and upward!

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Originally published at https://stephenmatlock.com on September 20, 2023.



stephen matlock

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at stephenmatlock.com Mostly off Medium now & writing elsewhere