When the NO becomes a YES

Jovana Jovanovska - Senegal


February 21, 2019

Since I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by various languages. Some of
them I learned to speak, others just to recognize in a crowded room of
people. As a result of being exposed to languages at an early age, for some
of the ones that I speak I don’t even remember learning them, such as
English or Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian. It was just as they were always there.
However, what I do remember is that I always had a passion for
understanding as many languages as possible. Languages have always been a
big part of my life. They have helped me find my way around in other
countries, enabled me to speak with people that don’t speak my mother
tongue (which is a lot considering the fact that my country has only around
2 million people), helped me learn more about the traditions of other
countries. For me, a language is not only a mean of communication, but a
way to understand another culture better.

I have been trying to write this blog for already some time, but somehow I
always ended up thinking there was something missing. Recently I realized
that the only thing missing was time. I have been learning Wolof for almost
half a year now, and even though I still don’t feel competent enough to
speak about the complexity of this language, I want to share two
experiences with language that surprised me a lot during my time here.

The first one was roughly around the second week in my homestay. It was
during the evening and I had just finished dinner. My host mom was still
around the bowl and suddenly she said to me “kaay reer” (come have dinner).
Since I was full, I refused by saying what I would always say at home –
“deet deet, jerejef” (no, thank you). After I said this, my host mom
explained to me that it’s inappropriate to say no when someone offers you
something. I should have responded with “surnaa” (I’m full). Even though I
was confused at first, with time I realized that in Wolof, people rarely
say no as an answer, but rather use other expressions like “inchallah” (God
willing).

The second one happened my last language class. At the beginning of the
class, our teacher was explaining us how one word – “fay” can have many
meanings depending on the context. One of the meanings of this word is
temporary separation of a couple, or, in the words of my teacher, when the
woman doesn’t want divorce but is angry with the husband, so she goes back
to the house of her parents for a small period of time. I found it so
intriguing that it took him a whole sentence in English to explain this one
short word in Wolof. What I realized with this is that languages change
according the culture and the needs of the people that speak it. Perhaps in
English there was no reason to come up with a word like that just because
the situation doesn’t happen as often, but it’s a different case here.

These are only two of the examples that have made me think of the
complexity of languages and how intertwined they are with culture. I’m
immensely happy to be learning Wolof because I believe it helped me immerse
a lot more in this country as well as made me realize how satisfied
learning languages makes me. Beugnaa Wolof bu bach.

Jovana Jovanovska