Nelson Mandela is famous for the quote "If you talk to man in a language he understands it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language it goes to his heart" for a good reason. Since being in Senegal I have developed a new understanding and passion for language learning. Not only does it allow you to connect with others but it challenges you to get out of your comfort zone and interact in a tongue you may not yet be comfortable in.
Here in Senegal languages often indicate what ethnic group a person comes from. There's many languages varying from your geographic location. Languages include, Pular, Wolof, Serer Laala, Serer Noon, Mandinka, and 31 others. While the national language of Senegal is French, many people will only speak Wolof and maybe another more ethnic language.
Where I live, language learning is promoted incredulously in school. Since children are born they learn Serer Laala, pick up Wolof, and then begin learning French in elementary school. Many people, around the age 13 are already fluent in 3 languages. So while they speak Laala to each other, when they leave our villages they speak Wolof to venders and French to foreigners or in more professional settings.
But not only will children have school taught in French, but they will begin taking 2 other foreign languages as soon as they reach high school. The Pambal High School offers English, Spanish, and Arabic. Most people can speak at least a bit of English and Spanish. Some even become very proficient. So in this one set of villages in Thiés, Senegal you can meet someone who is 20 and can speak 3 languages fluently and 2 proficiently.
But why do people feel the need to learn so many languages? Especially ones like English and Spanish which aren't needed in daily life in Senegal? Me and some others from Pambal did a project and interviewed several teachers and students on why they believe languages are so important to learn.
Nearly everyone gave the answer that it is to be able to communicate with as many people as possible, to be able to travel, and to be able to understand other cultures. I believe this push for language learning leading to cultural exploration is so important for young people to understand.
So why do so many young Americans not see the necessity in language learning? My friend Isa recently made an important point about English speakers. She said that many English speakers believe its other people's problem if they don't speak English because it's so wildly used. However, many non-English speakers find it's their problem if they can't speak another persons language and work to learn it in order to more deeply understand that person. I think that distinction between native English and non native speakers is important to see. Just because your mother tongue may be one that is shared with millions around the world, does not mean you have no responsibility to interact with others in their language.
From a personal standpoint, I can tell, and have been told, that people really appreciate when I speak in Laala. And while my Wolof is limited I am still able to communicate enough that people are able to see that I recognize the importance of how languages play a huge role in someone's culture and that I want to understand both of those things.
What does this mean for young Americans? Only 7% of American students are enrolled in a foreign language in higher education and only 1% of adults are proficient in a foreign language they studied in a classroom. Those are really sad facts. But learning languages is not the only issue but what languages people are learning. For example, in 2013 about 198,000 students were enrolled in French and only 64 studied Bengali. However, the population of French speakers is only 75 million while 193 million speak Bengali. 95% of all people enrolled in a language will study a European language. This prevents them from wanting to, being comfortable enough, or even thinking of certain countries as an option to explore.
I hope for the future that school systems will push harder to students to learn foreign languages not just for the sake of college but for the role it plays in being a good global citizen. Not only could it create a new population of students who have the urge to travel and learn from other cultures, but being bi or multi-lingual has countless benefits for your learning capacity. A few include, it allows you to more easily learn more languages, it's improves your memory and increases your attention span, and a recent study even showed learning languages can lessen the effects of Alzheimer's.
Not only does it have those benefits but I think many people would be surprised with how many people actually don't speak English. In order to get around, buy anything, or have any meaningful conversations with the majority of people in Senegal I have to speak in a language besides English.
Hopefully with our ever globalizing world, students will being to see how it's not just "their" problem but our own as well. And maybe this will push people out in the world to find all the beautiful things it has to offer.