And lack thereof
I. Do. Not. Speak. French. Sometimes (all the time) I feel like I need a sign on my forehead declaring this to the well-meaning people of Senegal who see my lack of melanin and immediately launch into the official national language, a remnant that still binds the colonizer and the colonized. In all fairness, many of them have never met a tubab (the Wolof word for white person or foreigner) unable to speak French. In the same way that I would assume that someone walking down the street with a tennis racket is a tennis player, they see a pale-skinned person and assume I speak French. Upon explaining that I don’t understand the European tongue—something I have done so many times I could do it in my sleep—people often have one in five reactions:
1. The Accepter. Upon learning that I don’t speak French, the accepter immediately switches to Wolof, thus enabling communication, and we all happily get on with our lives. Sadly, there are far fewer accepters than one would think.
2. The Exclamation Points. Much like the accepter, the exclamation point switches immediately to Wolof upon learning that French is not a common language between the two of us. What makes the exclamation points special is that they get really, really excited about it. You-are-my-new-favorite-person kind of excited. Exclamation points can be found in cities and places where foreigners can be easily found; for example, the tourist-y hotel I stayed at with my family when they came to visit. My father summed it up pretty well when he commented towards the end of our stay, “They love you!” Exclamation points are what make learning Wolof worth it.
3. The Tester. These people accept I don’t understand French, but they want to see just how much Wolof I really know, so they launch into rapid-fire questioning. I have only just now reached a point of language proficiency where I can respond in amount and accuracy to pass these tests—and even now I struggle with random vocab and lightning quick speeds. Testers are fun because even if I understand and answer nine out of ten questions perfectly, I still get the accusing final grade of “you don’t understand anything” for missing the tenth.
4. The Denier. Like the name suggests, the denier doesn’t accept that I do not speak French, and they refuse to switch from speaking French to speaking Wolof. Within the group of deniers there are two different camps: the aggressives and the forgetfuls. Forgetful deniers are usually very kind people who, no matter how many times I remind them, can’t seem to grasp that I have zero comprehension when they speak to me in French. A good example of a forgetful denier is the tailor who works next door to my own tailoring apprenticeship: I see him at least four times a week, always greet him in Wolof, yet whenever he tries to strike up a conversation with me he uses French.
While forgetful deniers are often amusing, aggressive deniers are some of my least favorite people. When I tell an aggressive denier I don’t speak French, their reaction is to continue speaking French, just louder. Perhaps it is to tell me that they don’t believe me, but I really don’t know, because I don’t speak French. An interaction with an aggressive denier means being yelled at in a language I don’t understand, all the while painfully aware of how all the frustration could be easily avoided.
5. The Pular (this is an actual ethnic group within Senegal that I reserve the right to tease as I live with a Pular family and am thus basically Pular myself). Whenever a Pular learns I speak Wolof instead of French, they immediately ask why I’m not learning Pular instead of Wolof, and insist that Pular is a better language. Perhaps it is, but where I live in Senegal, Wolof is far more common, and thus much more practical. However, no amount of explaining can satisfy someone with so much pride and love of their language.