The Wolof Language

Maddi McGirr - Senegal


March 11, 2019

Some of my multi-lingual UWC friends may find this read somewhat amusing but I’m writing to share my perspective on learning a second language and becoming proficient in such.

Senegal has many local languages, Wolof being the most common. Before coming to Senegal I was convinced that I would be learning French but upon arriving I soon realised this would not simply be the case. My Senegalese host family converse in Wolof, only using French for school or translations for me! With my 7 years of French I sadly still found myself unable to communicate, thank you British education system and it’s inability to teach languages – well, at least! So Wolof became the best viable option.

Compared to French or English, Wolof is a very simply language. The vocabulary may not be similar to that of my native tongue but there are few grammar rules and one word can be used in a multitude of meanings. In another sense, Wolof is a very sociable language and it compliments Senegalese humour perfectly, the simplest yet funniest jokes are just not transferable to English.
Being a British citizen I never expected much of myself in the way of languages. I’ve learnt French, Italian and Spanish over the years but none seemed to stick. It was easy to blame it on bad teaching or my lack of effort to learn or simply that I don’t have the ‘brain’ for languages. So before coming to Senegal, language learning (of any kind) was my biggest apprehension. Yet somehow I got lucky. Wolof seems to be MY language, the one that finally stuck and coincidentally just clicked for me. And surely that helped me in forming relationships and becoming comfortable in this country and inevitably falling in love with it.

It’s so strange for me to notice myself thinking in Wolof, or translating things in my head when listening to English conversations. I’ve never been able to speak another language comfortably without having to think thoroughly before opening my mouth or reading from a written text, yet here I am running my mouth off in Wolof all over Tivaouane! It’s a personal feat after being in a school where people are amused by the fact that you only speak one language to becoming socially proficient in an unconventional one.

I sometimes wonder whether it was a mistake not to learn at least some level of conversational French being here, for more practical use. But someone posed the argument to me that after Senegal I can learn French anywhere , study abroad in France or take classes at university, however the only real chance I have to learn Wolof is in the country that speaks it, and a country that greatly appreciates its guests (or foreigners) for speaking the native language.

Part of me is worried that I will forget the language but how can you forget something that you love? Something that you’re proud of? I enjoy joking around with my friends and I like having serious conversions, I like challenging myself to learn new vocabulary – even one month before the end of my programme, and I enjoy the person I am, in Wolof. It’s so interesting to look at myself for who I am when I speak English compared to when I speak Wolof.
In Wolof, I’m confident and straight forward. I’m forced to listen better and give myself time to think of meaningful things to say. I’m a comedian of sorts and I can be sensitive. I can be invisible or I can be the focus of the room. And I say these things not to showboat, but to show you all a sense of the pride I have for what I have achieved.

That’s not to say it has been an easy journey. My friend and I described the learning curves as “speed bumps”- the next barrier to overcome to get to a higher level of understanding. And there were plenty of speed bumps in the road. There would be weeks when I could barely catch what was going on and I would feel afraid to talk for fear of mistake but we’d remind each other that it just meant we were getting more fluent. My mum likes to tell me, sometimes it has to get worse to get better. And in my case of learning Wolof this couldn’t be more true. It’s been a bumpy ride, sure hit my head on the roof of the car a few times (metaphorically and literally – cars are not exactly perfectly modelled in Senegal!) but the experience I got at the end was totally worth it.

Wolof became my comfort, and strangely I find myself naturally resorting to “waaw” instead of “yes” ninety percent of the time. I’m excited to explore what more I have to learn in my last few weeks and figure out the best ways for me to keep it up after leaving Senegal.
I will share a proverb I found in my first week here that really got me excited to learn a new language and rings true for me to this moment:
“You live a new life for every language you speak”

Maddi McGirr