The Global Citizen Toolbox I Carry
This past year I spent six months in West Africa, mostly in Senegal studying local languages, using my French and many skills I didn’t realize I had gained at Concordia Language Villages. I initially went there on a gap year semester course, for students between high school and university. The framework for the program was an incredible way to start my journey in a new culture,but I was also thankful for the freedom I had, once the program was done, to apply everything I learned in a group setting on my own, holding myself accountable to use these skills while traveling.
On my walk home from the Manufacture des Arts Decoratifs in Thies, Senegal to learn about the creation of large scale tapestries, I see other people on the street walking, talking on their phones, eating as they gesture over and say “kai lekk”, (come eat). I thank them for the offer and continue. I see groups of men sitting in the afternoon shade making “attayya” tea. As I near my house, I approach Mr. Sen, with whom I speak every day on this walk. We exchange typical Senegalese greetings in Wolof, asking politely about family, health and work. Gradually, Mr. Sen’s friends stop by, greet us, and stay for a while to chat. One of his friends tells me I need to learn Wolof if I want to be in Senegal. I ask him how to ask all the questions I want to ask him in Wolof and he helps me decode his answers. As I finish my walk home and say “ba chi kanam”, (see you later), to Mr. Sen and his friends, I pass the group of card players under a mango tree that I pass everyday, they invite me to come play and I tell them I will pass by tomorrow. As I reach my house, the exhaustion from the heat really hits me. My host sister opens the door to our house and my three-year-old host brother hits me with a running-leg hug!
Living with my host families were by far the most powerful experiences I had in my six months in Senegal. I was able to be a part of a small community and create personal connections while helping cook and learning about their day-to-day realities. These host family experiences were also the most challenging for me, but they were a context I was familiar with in a new setting. Because of my experience in language immersion at L’étoile du Nord French Immersion Elementary School, travels abroad,and at Concordia Language Villages, being surrounded by a language I didn’t understand didn’t affect me as much as I think it did some of others in the program. I had my “language learning tools” that I could use.
If you have ever been a Concordia Language Villager, or staff at the Villages, you know there are certain strategic phrases for beginners, like “How are you?” “What is your name?” “What are you doing?” that help you enter the full language immersion experience. These tools also help you begin to understand the second language culture, and are part of the approach to “living the language” in the Villages.The most useful phrase, of course, no matter how many times you use it for the same things, is “how do you say ____ in (target language)”. I found I could easily apply these language learning rituals we have at Concordia in a new language and culture. For me, the biggest realisation I had while in Senegal, was that through my many years at Concordia as a villager and last summer as staff,I didn’t just learn language and culture, I learned how to learn a language, and how to begin to learn about a culture. Once I realized this, I had a plan for learning multiple languages in West Africa.
Being a French speaker in Senegal , I was able to communicate with people around me, most of whom usually spoke French. Thinking back on my experience, I wonder if because I had that safety net I was somehow more comfortable. In situations where it seemed like no one spoke French I didn’t feel as if I were acting differently but I think the biggest thing that helped me was having learned languages other than English. I often felt in school, that learning a second language was especially challenging because things English speakers have as linguistic norms in their heads may not fit the linguistic norms for other languages. Things like verb conjugation and gendered nouns often seemed to me conceptually, a huge hurdle in language learning in traditional classroom settings. For me, language learning in Senegal was equal parts real-life and structured classroom time which I think really affected how I was able to apply concepts. I credit much of my growth and learning of local languages in Senegal to my past experiences, like attending an immersion school and the Concordia Language Villages early in my life, but also the language learning focus that my Where There Be Dragons program had.
One thing that consistently amazed me in Senegal was the huge diversity in languages. In Senegal, a country roughly the size of South Dakota, there are more than 32 ethnic languages based on geographic regions and ethnic groups. The primary languages spoken are Wolof and French. As more people move to the urban centers, where people speak French fluently and Wolof is the language of informal economy, there is what people call a “Wolof-ization” of Senegal. The vast diversity in ethnic groups that exist in Senegal speak to the age of cultures and how long they have existed there. From what I observed and experienced, ethnic groups were not only defined by a language or dialect but also a cultural socio-economic role. For example, the Serer are traditionally fisherman and live in seaside regions, the Pulaar are traditionally herdsman and this is why Pulaar and its dialects are spoken in more than twelve West African countries, because as herdsmen they traveled and so did then by default, their language. With these ethnic groups they not only have their own dialects or languages but huge cultural lore as well and cultural knowledge specific to their ethnic group.
Through my language learning in Senegal I was able to create very strong connections with the people I lived and worked with, once they saw me making the investment in my own time and learning of their languages and cultural norms, they reciprocated by helping me and creating friendships with me. Once I had the relationships with people, I was able to engage them into a project I was doing while volunteering for the for the education department at the Jane Goodall Institute Spain in Senegal. One of the main pillars of the Jane Goodall Institute is their environmental education and public awareness projects. The biggest obstacle I encountered while trying to put these values into action was the energy that was put into reaching the local communities, and effectively engaging them. I realized that once I had personal connections and relationships with people, and I engaged them, they would also engage. This was extremely powerful for me to see the impact I could have on changing a community but also the power that I had to make that change a reality. I was especially able to create these connections because of my local language skills, and the energy I put into connecting with my host families, and the culture I experienced around me every day. In a bigger context of creating change in the world, interpersonal relationships, as I saw firsthand are necessary and extremely powerful to grow networks and movements, but also ultimately necessary to create change.
I have long experienced within myself and through my own experiences the power of language to create connections between people, across cultures, countries and beliefs, but not until then did I realize that language learning as a tool for change making is so powerful. Language learning is an act of global citizenship, and is an act of change making, because of its power to create connections and change perspectives across borders, cultures, and time zones.
To me, the direct correlation that global citizenship, language learning and creating social change have is yet another powerful skill in the toolbox I feel so thankful to carry with me into the world.