Week on Senegal #2: On Language

José Israel Cruz


October 21, 2014

I write these words on October 15th. 

While I will still write seven blogs, it won’t all be done in a week. I chose that quality is better than quantity and took my time with my blogs. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role language plays in society, mainly because of all the language barriers I’ve experienced recently. Language really is a powerful thing, and I think we humans tend to forget that pretty often. When you’re a global citizen, though, the power of language is ten times as noticeable. I’m now reminded a lot of the legend of the Tower of Babel: The people of the early world — all with the same language — choose to build a tower that would reach the heavens. They seemed to have done a pretty darn impressive job, because Almighty God says: If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  So, for some reason, in the legend God makes everyone speak different languages, and booyah, the Tower is abandoned.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with language. I recognize the power and influence that language has on the way humans think, act, and interact, and on one hand, I admire that power. On the other, I’m intimidated by it. Upon arriving to Senegal, the intimidation started to overthrow the admiration. At first, being in Senegal felt like being in Hopeless Babel. I wanted to build a tower of relationships and new ideas, but no one was on the same frequency as me.

You see, Senegal is the land of a million languages. Senegal houses over 20 ethnic groups, each with their very own native tongue. That’s over twenty different languages in a country the size of Georgia! Interestingly, though, the main language is French, you know, because colonialism. But wait, there’s more! 95% of the population is Muslim, which means that there’s a strong Arabic influence. The abundance of Western media has made English a pretty common language, as well, and in my time here I’ve met my fair share of Spanish speakers. The amount of diversity in the Senegalese tongue is so remarkable, that the capital city of Dakar has developed its own distinct kind of Wolof that people call Dakar Wolof, which is heavily influenced by French, Arabic, and even English words and phrases.  With so many languages, I wondered how such a strong, united, warm country arose from the seemingly Babel-like conditions.

As time went on and as I started grasping the languages a little better, admiration began to overcome intimidation once again. Senegal managed to build the Tower of Babel, in a way, and I felt that there was a lesson to be learned. Hearing conversations from the sidelines, I was awed at the amount of diversity I found in such a united place.  They embraced their cultures, their influences, and more importantly, their differences. Despite the linguistic differences, everyone here gets along. Schools prioritize language learning; most people know at the least two languages, and I’ve met people that know up to seven. The reason for this is because, despite the differences, there is a shared sense of unity and belonging. People willingly learn other people’s languages, much unlike the US, where there is a sort of English-only attitude in the mainstream culture.

It is in this united attitude of the Senegalese spirit that I believe us Americans have a lesson to learn. Being here, I think about the “minorities” in America, which slowly are becoming the majority. I think about this year’s Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial and the backlash it received. I think about how many Puerto Ricans believe that it is impossible for us to be a state simply because we are Spanish-speaking (and I think about this last one despite the fact that I am not pro-statehood). I think about the vast amount of brave immigrants over the centuries that left their countries and learned to survive in a culture unlike theirs. I think about bipartisan politics, and how even when both sides speak perfect English, it seems like they’re never speaking the same language.  Oh, how powerful is communication, how powerful it is indeed.

Language, being such the powerful force it is, is more than capable of stopping people from building their Towers of Babel. The Senegalese people, though, have built the Tower. They knew that behind every tongue, and behind every word, was a human with rights, ideas, and potential. They speak the language of unity, and really that’s the only language we’ll ever need if we plan to do the impossible, which I think we very well can.

Language may tumble towers, but people? They’re the ones that build them. And that is admirable.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of the most recent blog of a fellow Senegal Cohort member, Rayla Freeman (I invite you to read the blog in its entirety and subscribing to her, because she is one of the most exceptional minds I’ve ever met):

“Language isn’t real… Underneath all of the language, real communication (at least what I have seen so far) comes in smiles and body postures. It comes in laughter and the tone of voice you use when you talk. It comes in sharing and finding ways to collaborate to meet the needs of others. Language is only a tool. Language isn’t real, but people are.

 

José Israel Cruz