Language, Langue, Lengua, Laaka

Alec Yeh - Senegal


October 13, 2009

I’ve never been very good at languages. I’ve always had a tough time learning them and mastering them. But knowing a language tells you so much about the culture of its people. Yes, the roots of it might be Germanic, or Arabic, or so on. Knowing that may tell you the influences and the roots of the culture. But more importantly, the words can tell you the people’s values.

I was learning Wolof the other day, and we were curious what the word “sad” was. My teacher looked at us confused. We asked her again, slower. But once again, she looked at us with a blank expression. It turns out, there is no direct translation for “sad” in Wolof. There is a word for crying, or a word for mad or angry, but there simply isn’t a word for “sad.” And that fits perfectly. The Senegalese aren’t a sad people. Passing then on the street, they are always laughing or smiling. They simply look happy. And I find that incredible, that as a people, they can be so cheerful. They aren’t rich; the quality of life here is way below that of the US, yet they don’t care. Why can’t Americans be so happy all the time? Why can’t we just be content with what we have? We’re always looking for more, looking for something that quenches that unquenchable thirst. Maybe we should learn a few things from the Senegalese.

Interestingly enough, I was actually able to communicate with somebody at home today. The laundress was at home when I came home. She started speaking Wolof, and I tried to talk back, but instead I ended up confused and apologetic. She then started speaking French, and I tried again, but ended up even more frustrated. I told her, in French, that I spoke English, Chinese, and Spanish. And surprisingly enough, the one language that allowed us to communicate was Spanish. I was using my Spanish to speak to an African woman in a Francophone country. I was shocked, and incredibly impressed. Her Spanish was very poor, but then again, my Spanish is only the result of the public school system (which means its not the best either). But I was able to learn that she was a student, the same age as I, working as a laundress to earn money for books for school. There was much pause, much confusion, much laughter between each sentence, and sometimes each word, but it still worked. Amazing.

Oh, and there’s no such word as “funny” in Wolof either. Except I find the Senegalese as funny as any other culture.

Alec Yeh