How Shall I Greet Thee? Or, Multilingualism

When I was in college at the University of Michigan, I had lofty goals as I’m sure most teens on the verge of their twenties do. I was going to be a prize-winning author. I was going to be a poet. I was going to work as a journalist for a newspaper. I was going to be trilingual. It’s possible, I thought. I already speak English and Spanish. I’ll just add French. How hard could it be? At the time, it turns out, it was really difficult! I tried really hard, but whenever I didn’t know a word in French, I resorted to Spanish which, I’m sure, frustrated my French teacher. I limped out of that class at the end of the semester with a very bruised ego and a semi-respectable C- (I think) and never looked at French again.

Fast forward 20+ years and I find myself in a foreign country, but it’s not one where the people speak a language I already know. Of course not. That would be too easy. In order to prepare for this incredible trip thanks to IREX and the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship, I have had to relearn the French I’ve long forgotten, and the irony was not lost on me. I also have been trying to learn Wolof, one of the local languages spoken in various parts of Senegal. I carry a cheat sheet with me of common words, phrases, and questions, and try to use them occasionally when I feel brave. This morning when I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, I responded to the French greeting in French. The hostess smiled and giggled a little and in clear English spoken with a French accent said, “Oh you are trying to speak French.” I smiled and very sheepishly replied behind a hand hiding my smile, “I’m trying.” And I was. But sometimes when I greet people first thing in the morning or mid afternoon, I say “bonsoir” instead of “bonjour.” When people say to me “Comment ça va?” I am sometimes taken off guard.

I now have a newfound respect for learners of any language that is new and different! While in Dakar, I learned that students have a local language that they speak at home and are instructed in French at school. However, when students reach grade 6, they begin learning English as well, and by high school, they choose an additional language as an elective! In our school visit today to Lycée Galandou Diouf High School, a class of students was learning Spanish! I was completely blown away! In addition, the students can choose Arabic, German, or Portuguese, as a language elective. How incredible! In addition, the language classes are mixed ability. In other words, students may be in the 11th or 12th grade but taking a beginning level language course.

Not only was the list of offered languages impressive, the students’ commitment to learning was as well. They enjoyed being able to brag about high marks in school and knowing what they wanted to do with their lives. Some wanted to be surgeons, astronauts or work at NASA, others wanted to do something related to mathematics, but still others didn’t know what they wanted to do. What they did possess, however, was the ability to navigate between multiple languages and they were given the space to do just that through language clubs.

Spanish class at Lycée Galandou Diouf High School in Dakar, Senegal

Students lead the language clubs and organize events to promote a deeper understanding about the language they are learning and to showcase what they have learned so far as well. These are multilingual students who have been placed in leadership roles are rising to the occasion. On April 27 at 2:00 pm, the English Club of the high school will have “Opening Day” at the school, which is similar to what Americans call “Open House.” It is an opportunity for the students to show what they have learned in and about English by performing songs, skits, speeches, etc.

The President (left), member (right center), and Vice President (far right) of the English Club at Lycée Galandou Diouf High School

What impressed me the most was the grace with which they could navigate between the languages: Wolof, French, and now English. I went to dinner with cohort mates from the Fellowship and had a lively interaction with our server. He greeted me in French, spoke some in English and even in Spanish, and threw in a few phrases of Wolof! There were four languages carrying that conversation and I was a part of it. The server had created a safe space for me to learn and try without fear of judgment and ridicule. He was gracious when I made a mistake and he applauded not only my attempts, but my successes and pushed me to go a little further by introducing more words and phrases in either French or Wolof. I could go on and on about how instruction of any kind should be this nurturing or engaging. I think educators know that and to do that here cheapens the experience by reducing it to a sermonette. I’ll leave today’s experience where it is and just say that it was the best two hours of language immersion I’d ever spent and I am encouraged to learn all the more. Jere jef…Merçi…Thank you.