Language the difference between life and death

This is not the best way to start the week, but I’ve just read a tragic story of miscommunication in Pennsylvania, USA, and it made me wonder what I would do in a similar situation.

Mamadou Makadji, 22, a student from Mali, was shot and killed after a robbery at gunpoint escalated when the victim and his friends did not understand what the gunman was saying.

Makadji and two friends were sitting on a park bench when a gunman approached and tried to rob them. Makadji did not understand what the man was saying, and he was struck with the pistol and then shot, Clark said. His two friends, also students from West Africa, were not harmed.

Makadji’s uncle stated that cultural differences in the way people regard guns may have had some influence.

“In Mali, no one thinks about a gun for the people. You think about guns for the army. … You carry the gun for the animal,” he said. “If you fight someone, you never think about the gun.”

Mahamadou Sissoko, president of the Malian Association in Philadelphia, said Makadji eventually did understand that he was being robbed.

“He was digging in his pocket for the money when (the gunman) hit him,” Sissoko said. “The guy probably felt ignored.”

The apparently quiet student was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What would you do if approached by an agitated, gun-wielding person speaking a language you didn’t understand?  Not all hand gestures are international, and it’s unlikely that the robber would have stopped to consider that perhaps the victim’s hesitation was because of confusion, not bravado.  In English-speaking countries, a lot of native speakers assume everyone else also speaks English.  Sadly, this assumption can be the decider between armed robbery and murder.

Source: AP/Google News.