Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Polyglot by chance


To all of my gmail friends (and gmail-wanna-be friends),
Gmail has this cool new feature that happens to work in Senegal.  Basically, you can send an SMS text, FOR FREE, to my Senegalese cell phone (221 77 673 0064).  When I receive your text, a local Senegalese number is created for you that I can save along with your name.  I can then text you back at my local rate.  Brilliant!  If you try this, be sure to sign your name to your text so that I’ll know who you are as the numbers in my US cell phone did not transfer over and I haven't re-entered all of these yet.  Hope to hear from some of you from time to time.

Polyglot, by chance

So, as some of you know, ending up in Africa was a bit of a surprise for me.  For an entire year, I prepared for life in the Peace Corps in Latin American and spent many studious hours re-learning the Spanish that had been buried in the depths of my brain since high school.  Last July, I took a 40-hour immersion course, studied for and passed the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam, and spent every Tuesday evening for the next 12 months in a conversational Spanish class.  However, six weeks before I was due to depart, I got the call from Peace Corps asking if I’d change my plans and come to Francophone Africa instead.  “Sure“, I said.  “Flexibility is key, right?”  I was so tired of waiting for a placement that I thought, “just assign me already!“  In that flash of a moment, I thought that since I’d studied French in high school and college and had spent a semester in Paris and had successfully re-learned one language that I was up for the challenge.  “Bring it on!”

So, five days after arriving in Senegal, I began immersion French classes.  Aside from the obvious problems of trying to speak French with a Spanish accent, learning it from someone with an African accent, and trying to replace all recently-learned  nouns, verbs, and verb tenses with new ones, I was actually doing okay.  Because my host-family in my training village spoke Wolof, and very little French, I got a break from daily immersion each night as I sat around our dinner platter and listened to them speak a truly foreign language.  In a way, I was able to shut language out completely and give my mind a rest at the end of each day.  I did a lot of smiling, pointing, and nodding with my family and although it didn't promote great conversations, it served as effective communication.  Ahh, those were the days. 

In a rush to get us fully prepared to live independently and be able to communicate with people in our assigned posts, the Peace Corps, after just 4 weeks of training, decided to move those of us who reached an Intermediate-Low level of French to Wolof classes.  Aack!  Unfortunately, immediately after this decision, I spent our first day of class sick in bed. When I returned to class, on Day 2 of Wolof training, I felt completely lost.  While I was feverishly sweating in bed and making hourly runs (pun intended) to the bathroom, my classmates had banded together in solidarity to master Wolof without me, putting me at a linguistic disadvantage.  I kid you not; after just one day, they were carrying on lengthy conversations with each other while I stared teary-eyed at the chalkboard. 

What I haven’t really mentioned thus far is that our physical learning environment is a challenge in itself.  Language classrooms at the Training Center are concrete-walled huts with thatched roofs and sheets of wood painted black that lean against the wall and serve as chalkboards.  In the training village, we usually meet in one or two of our host family compounds.  We meet from 9am - 1pm, break for lunch, and then meet again from 4pm - 6pm.    Aside for the unbearable heat of the day or the afternoon deluge of rain, there are many other distractions to effective learning, like: 1) family members that walk by one-by-one as they arise for the day to greet us (greeting is very big here and with large families of 10-15 people this becomes a constant activity), 2) flies, which come in many shapes and sizes, that make sport of landing on us and require constant swatting, 3) random animals that wander through the classroom on their way outside to graze for the day, and 4) our teacher who frequently stops to answer his cell phone or return a text.  Last week, we actually had this strange old woman wander into the compound, interrupt the class, and ask our teacher for some money so she could buy bread.  When I asked him afterward if he knew the woman, he said “No, that’s just what we do here in Senegal.”

Immersion training in action
Language Hut @ Training Center

Classroom in Training Village

Sheep wandering through class
Rooster checking out the lesson

Okay, so now that you have a picture of my daily classroom distractions, let’s go back to imagining me, foggy-headed, dehydrated, and on the verge of tears, trying to absorb my third language in just 12-months.   Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.  It wasn’t until the following weekend that I had any grasp of Wolof what-so-ever.  But that’s the funny thing about total immersion.  Once you have that grasp, as slight as it may be, you can immediately begin communicating.  I’ve since had successful, albeit short and elementary, conversations with my host-family and with the women at the market.  How ‘bout me?!
My Host-Dad (closest to table) learning Polish

Last week we had a Counterpart Workshop for our Small Enterprise Development team at the training center that was attended by the people we'll be working/living with at our permanent sites.  During this 2-day seminar, we had a session on language to help gain some empathy from our local hosts regarding how frickin' difficult it is for us to be communicating and conducting business in another language (in another country) after just 2 months of training.  We asked for three volunteers to come to the front of the lecture hall and had them experience a 30-min immersion class in Polish (one of my fellow trainees speaks this fluently).  My counterpart and future host-Dad was one of the brave few to participate.  It was rather fun to observe them completely lost in words and phrases they'd never heard before and was effective at driving home our point.

Yup, that's me teaching in French
Also at this workshop, we put on an American Cross-Cultural fair to help our host-country partners understand our cultural differences. My group presented Women throughout the 20th Century and outlined things such as the womens' suffrage movement, women taking on industrial roles during WW2, the womens' rights movements, the working woman, and women in politics. We also spoke about the Modern Woman and the concepts of independence, choice, balance, and partnership.  This was quite eye-opening session for a group of people who are used to women staying at home to cook, clean, and share their homes with multiple wives.  Needless to say, we had lots of questions.  Oh, did I mention that we gave this presentation in French?  We had six groups cycle through our presentation, so by the end of it we were a bit tongue-tied.  In the end, Awa, our Cultural Awareness trainer asked us for our presentation so that she could give it to Language and Cultural Facilitators that join the staff.

We head back to the training village this afternoon for one last week of Wolof.  Wish me luck!


  1. Hi April! I'm really enjoying reading your blog! It's fun to keep up with what you're doing. I'm overwhelmed by the language stuff. Yikes!! Thanks for sharing : )
    Melanie Perl~

  2. I'm so proud of you lil' sis! I really enjoyed reading this latest blog. You amaze me!

  3. April - once again you have provided a vivid and highly entertaining account of your new and fascinating life. I am enjoying every word. Thank you for sharing.

  4. "foggy-headed, dehydrated, and on the verge of tears". Are you sure you're in Senegal, and not flashing back to a business meeting in Annapolis?

  5. IYIYI!! Wow! Thanks for the news. Sounds like you are fitting a lot into a day! I feel really boring compared to you! Dad is trying to figure out how to call you. I gave him the new number there and your new address. Michael was home for four days and is now working Bend for a few weeks. Hang in there. More later!
    XOXO Bon