What I’ve learnt by learning a language from zero

Kali Regenvanu - Senegal


November 17, 2019

—> What I’ve learnt by learning a language from zero 
Before coming to Senegal I may have done one or two google searches – brief and forgotten minutes later – on common wolof sentences. As I said, in hindsight, I now see these searches were more so I didn’t feel like I was falling behind the normal path of progress. As if glancing at the language might allow me to osmosis the language overnight. I crossed my fingers secretly hoping it would be easy. To be perfectly candid, I didn’t know a single word before arriving to Dakar. I didn’t even have the most basic, the most common phrase down. ‘Salaam alaikum’ was still so far from my realm of knowledge. 
On arrival to Senegal, I was shocked to see that my counterparts actually had… a basic grasp of some of the basic sentences. Nay, they were even having little conversations with people around them. Broken conversations, but conversations nonetheless. I was shocked. Was it possible my osmosis powers didn’t work and all of theirs magically had? I was embarrassed by my blank slate against their shiny commitment to Wolof. 
After a couple wolof classes I was grateful for the few sentences I now had locked down. I felt accomplished, being able to respond to ‘How are you?’. I was feeling pretty decent about the growth of my abilities, which had gone from an absolute zero to something minimally above that. Yet on the morning that we were supposed to meet our host families and prance off into the distance and live happily forever after with them, I realized that I couldn’t really do more than tell them it was hot out, or ask if they were hungry. It was a rude awakening to say the least. 
In the first week I was constantly embarrassed and made more mistakes than I thought was humanly possible. It was all in good nature, but I did not realize how hard it was to learn a new language from absolute scratch until being with my family. I make as many mistakes as I did on the first day today. It is a rocky journey and though there is growth on the way, it is hard to see it at times. 
But something I learnt while having quite a minimal vocabulary is the power of the words we say. In English, I know a million different ways to say one thing I might want to express. I can say it exactly how I want it, and easily at that. When you are fighting your own brain to scrape together the most basic of sentences (which probably ends up being wrong anyways), you realize how important language is. The power of being able to express something clearly and exactly as you want is… priceless. It allows you to wield a great deal of power in your interactions. 
There have been hundreds (or possibly thousands at this point) of miscommunications that I’ve had with my family or with people on the street. Any interaction in wolof has potential to be misunderstood by the both of us, and understandably so. I suck in comparison to them to put it bluntly. I often just end up agreeing with what they say to make it easier for myself. If a stranger asks if I’m American sometimes I’ll just agree because I don’t have the energy to explain that I am not. Since wolof has an abundance of words that are pronounced extremely similarly but have totally different meanings, I have also made countless mistakes of miscommunication with these. For example, the word ‘garab’ means both tree and medicine. I was with my brother and his family and he asked me to pass the garab. I stared at him, dumbfounded, looking down at myself. Did I really look like a lumberjack today? Thinking I understood him, I picked up the wooden chair beside me and brought it to him, thinking to myself ‘yeah. That’s me. Ms. Fluent’. He laughed at me for longer than I thought possible and pointed at the bag from the pharmacy and said ‘That’s garab Oumy’. This is not the only time this has happened… you’d be surprised. Clarity is a gift and privilege that has not been granted to me at my level thus far. 
Mundane tasks also become paramount. I have busted my brain while on the bus to figure out how to ask them to stop at the Red Cross. I have stressed intensely on how to let my family know I’m heading out to language class. I have had to stand in my room, consulting my wolof book for several minutes at times to throw together some way to explain what my day was like, and what happened. I have also mastered the art of miming because of Wolof. It made me realize that language, and fluency at that, is a precious thing. It is something I have taken for granted every day I have been in an English speaking environment. The lack of stress in conversation is a shocking contrast. 
And the exhaustion. I have started to see conversations like levels of a video game. They keep getting tougher and tougher and when I complete one I feel on top of the world, but also immensely exhausted. I can literally feel my tense shoulders come down from my ears and settle to where they are supposed to be after a conversation. I can almost feel the gears in my brain grinding. It is so exhausting to translate everything you hear to English, and everything you say from English. It adds a whole other step to communication that requires immense amounts of energy and focus. 
Each sentence is poignant because it has to be. I am grateful for this, though it challenges my chatty conversational self deeply. But that’s the point, right?
I also noticed that when I speak to someone, I have to pay 200% of my attention to their words. This has made me appreciate what it is to be an attentive listener too, since most of what I do is listen to conversations. I have to hang on to every word for dear life, since missing one key word might affect my entire understanding of the other’s speech. Reading body language and genuinely listening to tone have become skills I have mastered. I have been forced to, since I can’t rely on my understanding of words. 
Wolof has encouraged me to listen deeply and attentively; to listen wholeheartedly. 
In other words, speaking wolof from base level has taught me more than I thought it would. It is challenging too, different to what I might have imagined. I am extremely grateful to be able to experience these bewildering sensations and frustrations. I can feel the growth, though painful and tedious, it is creating something… new. I am excited to see where these awkward moments of miscommunication and confusion take me in this adventure. 
The chaotic nature of my speech subsides a little every day, and gets less and less nerve wracking. I look forward to the day where I can express myself without feeling like peeing myself. Fingers crossed it will be soon, though I am eternally grateful for these lessons from my lack of fluency. 
Thanks for reading!

Kali Regenvanu