Language

posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 18, 2015

In Dakar, most people speak Wolof as their mother tongue. Dakar is a big city and there are people here from all over. Some Senegalese speak other languages as their mother tongue and there are Africans from other countries as well as people from countries outside Africa. But Wolof is one lingua franca in Dakar. The other, of course, is French. French is the language of instruction in school and anything written is always in French. I don’t think I ever saw written Wolof. Very few people in Dakar don’t speak French at all, some have a limited command of it, but the vast majority speak French quite fluently. You don’t need to ask permission to speak French in Dakar, the operative assumption is that everyone you speak to will be able to communicate in French. Two Senegalese will probably talk to each other in Wolof but sometimes they speak in French and very often they mix the two languages together in one uninterrupted flow. Everyone who is not a Wolof speaker uses French in Dakar.

At SABS the teachers and administration also speak English. The students speak either French or English in school – not only in class but even to each other. I don’t know if the students are prohibited from using Wolof on school grounds or if it is simply engrained that, at school, one speaks French (or English, in the case of SABS). The concept of bilingualism at SABS is a little like bilingualism generally in Dakar, one uses the language one is most comfortable in, and if the interlocutors are comfortable in both the two languages mix freely. In the Colonie de Vacances French is the language spoken by the majority of students, one or two are reasonably bilingual, and one or two are primarily anglophone.

I don’t have the ease in French to very quickly switch back and forth and, since French was more or less obligatory, it was easier for me to teach mostly in French. That is not say my French is good, or rather, good enough. While I speak French fluently, I found it is another level I haven’t reached yet to be able to not only talk about computer science but to translate difficult concepts into vivid and fluid language that children can understand. I also found it quite difficult to adapt my ear to the classroom. There is constant noise in a classroom filled with children and it is difficult to catch every word when a child is speaking to you. A native speaker can fill in the gaps, if they hear maybe 50% of what is said they will get the whole thing but if I don’t hear 90% I get completely lost. I noticed this with old French films, the poor quality of the soundtrack makes the whole thing completely incomprehensible to me while I perfectly understand newer films as well as radio and television. Then there is kid-speak. While the students speak French quite well and correctly, they are kids, some mumble, some stutter, some talk while they are chewing on the end of a pen, some talk very fast, some very slow. There are also some vocabulary differences between the Parisian and literary French I learned and French spoken in Senegal, so I am often using terms that are not incorrect but the students (and sometimes the teachers) don’t understand.

So, communication is a challenge, more so than I anticipated. I try to compensate by doing everything as hands-on as possible, so I am showing things as I speak and also by writing on the board and drawing. I also noticed that if the lesson is exciting, if the kids get into it, the communication barrier disappears, suddenly they are understanding me and I am understanding them without any problems. I was very happy, after our first lesson in computer systems, to find that the students could teach back all the components of a computer and explain what each did. Wow, so despite my terrible accent the students had actually got everything!

While the students should not be overburdened with the additional challenge of struggling to understand the teacher, I think it is good to get some experience interacting with foreigners with an imperfect command of French. My work as a computer scientist is very international and dealing with people from all over the world with many different accents is an important skill needed for my job. I have mostly had the advantage of being the native speaker while my contacts have been obliged to do the best they can with English. It is also a great experience for me to be on the other side, the one forced outside his comfort zone.