(Pulaar to English title translation: To Speak, To Understand)
In February, I alone headed out to Dakar to meet my family as they arrived in Senegal to visit me. Being fourteen hours away by car from my host family, I called them on the phone and my host mother, Neena Dialamba, asked “A suusi lootade?”(Are you brave enough to wash yourself?). Without cultural context, this question is odd. But at this point in time, Dakar was very cold compared to where I lived in Kedougou. In Kedougou, we take bucket showers. If it is cold outside in the morning, people would wait to shower until later, when it was warmer because there isn’t really an efficient way of heating your water up. My host mother was asking if I was brave enough to take a bucket shower in the cold weather of Dakar that would not improve throughout the day. I had a hot water shower in my nice hotel in Dakar so I answered, “Eyo, mi suusi” (Yes, I am brave).
Learning a new language really means learning a new way of life or culture. I saw this over time as I learned to speak Pulaar, taught English, and lived listening to a huge array of languages, allowing me to become more aware of the fact that in order to create a connection, it is necessary to understand the other person’s context. The language you use can be very personally tied to a place, time, and the people you interact with. As I grew to understand Pulaar, I realized that words or phrases I heard quite frequently would be ones that other Fellows living in the villages around me had never heard before or not as often- if compared, I’m sure our vocabularies would have been strikingly different, despite the fact we all were learning the same language. Inside jokes, slang, preferred subject matter in a conversation, accents, sounds to convey emotion, body language, and favored phrases are all examples of how much language changes from person to person. On top of this, there are people’s names, names of places, specific activities, and types of food that simply don’t have easy translations to English because they are unique to the culture. The only way you learn these words, this very interpersonal language, is by meeting people, going to these places, doing these activities, and eating this food, experiencing and interacting.
It can be confusing, even when speaking the same language with someone, but it gets even more complicated when life in Senegal requires multilingualism for different activities and the diversity of people. More than half the Senegalese I talked to would put up more than one hand to count on their fingers the number of languages they could speak.
Because I live in Kedougou City, the largest city in the region of Kedougou (containing two hospitals, banks, a huge market, and many schools up to high school level) many people from all over Senegal come and go, giving this city an especially large wealth of diversity. (When I talked to Fellows Alex and Keaton who lived in the villages around me, they said their communities were entirely Pulaar-speaking.) The national language in Senegal is French, which is used in schools and seen in written form. Wolof is the most commonly spoken native language in all of Senegal but in Kedougou region, the majority of the people speak Pulaar. Other languages I heard included Bassari, Bambara, Malinke, Mandinka, and Seerer. Because Senegal is by majority an Islamic country (though Christianity and Animism are also present), a majority of people learn Arabic. And then there are the foreign languages that people learn in school: Portuguese, Spanish, English, German, or Russian. On top of this, there were quite a few people that were deaf or incapable of speaking, with whom sign language is used.
Part of living in Senegal is understanding that not everyone is on the same level of any mutual language, or even that you have no language in common at all. It happened to me when I visited Peace Corps volunteer Chad’s village to see their efforts in grafting mango trees, and even though I had a wealth of knowledge for tools and the seasons, my knowledge was in Pulaar and everyone spoke Mandinka. I was used to not understanding but being misunderstood humbled me into realizing that even though at this point I was well versed in the culture, the place, and Pulaar, they would be no more impressed with me than if I had just arrived from the United States. I came to realize that this is a common experience for anyone in Senegal, foreigner and citizen alike.
Inevitably, people would be surprised when I told them I wanted to focus my language learning primarily to Pulaar and that besides that I can only comfortably speak English.
However, as I walked into the first high school class I would teach English to, I was surprised to realize that I didn’t even know English as well as I thought I did. What Mr.Sagna, (the class’s everyday teacher and my mentor) taught was the language I had taken for granted my whole life, but now tacked onto it were funny things like “passive voice”, “past perfect continuous,” and “æ ə ʊ.” The main thing they wanted me to help the students learn was communication skills- while they could understand a good amount, they had troubles speaking. After I taught my first improvised lesson around “the difference between capability and possibility”, Mr.Sagna had to reteach the entire lesson over again after me because he said they did not understand what I had said (but I was doing a great job teaching, he said, “you are a native speaker and they must learn your accent”). I was discouraged and told him I would rather help him teach than do a lesson single-handedly.
To his insistence and never faltering faith in me, I continued to give lessons, though I slowly came to the conclusion that the disconnect between me and the students was because I had learned English through experience, and not through the verb tense names and odd letters for pronunciation of English letter sounds that they were learning. It was also possible that the English words I was choosing to describe other English concepts were ones that were not words they were familiar with in this context, and they could not learn anything new out of them. Lastly, it was possible that my accent was ever so slightly different, but I doubted this was a large factor in the problem.
To solve these problems, I spent more time talking with the teachers about how they do their lessons, and did research about teaching English to French students online. I tried to do a few more heavily grammatical lessons but even I was falling asleep. I needed to try something new.
I realized that by creating a situation for them in which they could experience and interact in an authentic way, I could recreate for them the way I had learned English and the way I was rapidly learning Pulaar. In one such lesson I hid a small bag of peanuts in the classroom then blindfolded a student, who would take directions from another student, all in English, to get to the peanuts. They took turns at this activity, the whole class eagerly watching and jumping in with suggestions for commands when the leading student was tongue tied (despite my insistence to remain quiet) until all of the bags of peanuts were gone. This activity was proceeding a lecture on giving directions, with all words or phrases translated into French for clarity. It was only with the mastery of explaining in a way that would be understandable to the listeners (my students) and the real-life application of the new vocabulary that could bring them to their real-life objective- peanuts.
Mr.Sagna teased me that I came to Senegal to learn English. Actually, I learned that language can be infinitely more than translations in a dictionary. It is a human connection of understanding your listener and what their experiences are. It is a bridge to becoming a part of this very diverse community that is Senegal and the world.