More kids were joining the small circle. They were crowding in closer and closer to me as they became increasingly bold in playing this new “game.” It was a game of pointing and naming – body parts, clothing, other nearby objects – then listening to the white girl attempt to say the word before scribbling it down. It was a language-learner’s dream come true.
I was the white girl in a sea of Sereer-speaking, wide-eyed faces, and this was my dream come true. My American teammates and I were halfway through our 10-day trip to West Africa. We were enjoying an evening party with the national pastors and their families. There was some down-time before the meal was served, and, as I’d quickly gotten into the habit of doing, I looked for a way to turn things into a language-learning session. My Sereer notes and pen were not far; I took them and plopped myself down next to a few children. I began by pointing to a seashell on the pavement. “Nam keke layel?” (How do you say this) I asked them. They looked somewhat surprised at first; then one of the girls said, “Mbar.” I repeated it, she corrected me, and I transcribed it in phonetic script. And the game had begun.
Soon, I no longer had to point and could barely keep up with the children as they gestured to and named everything in reach. I had successfully recruited several new “teachers” in my language-learning adventure.
In my brief taste of language-learning while surrounded by native speakers, I discovered that I had one primary task: to show them that I really wanted to learn their language. Once I did that, they joined my team and my language-learning cause. I’ve read the accounts of other, more experienced language-learners in settings where there is no formal classroom, and they affirm what I found to be true. The native speakers become your teachers, your helpers, and your cheerleaders as you take your first wobbly, stammering steps in their world.
By Day 4 of the trip, I’d already collected several Sereer and Wolof teachers who were determined to help this white girl learn their language. They were patient and affirming, praising my humble attempts and repeating phrases until my accent was passable (or until they grew tired of telling me the same thing over and over). The best feeling came if I could remember the phrase the next day; I’d use with them what they had taught me, and a mini celebration would ensue.
Besides the children, the women who cooked our food were other teachers I found. As I made my greeting rounds every morning at the training center, I’d finish in the corner under the mango tree where they were peeling vegetables, pounding millet, and making other preparations for the afternoon meal. Thanks to that language-learning “power phrase” of “How do you say this?” (a top priority to learn in both Sereer and Wolof early in the trip), I could learn from them the names of what we’d be eating later that day. Karoot “carrot,” liip “fish,” maalo “rice,” batanse “eggplant,” nave “turnip,” soble “onion.” Halfway through the week, one of the women handed me the broom and in broken French informed me that since I was Sereer now, I could help with the work. I’ve never been so thrilled to sweep in my life.
P* was another teacher, and he took his role very seriously. He was one of the national pastors and the groundskeeper for the training center. When I met him our first day in the country, he had been sure to notify me that the Wolof greetings I’d used were fine, but that he and his family were Sereer so they used the Sereer greetings. A healthy respect for sociolinguistic “rules” and no qualms about telling the white person how things were – now that’s potential for a great language teacher! P* spoke French fluently, which made it easy for me to get the translation for phrases he taught me. After helping me learn something, the next day he would quiz me, speaking at natural speed and expecting me to keep up. One afternoon, as we American women ate the mid-day meal with the pastors’ wives, I learned the Sereer equivalent of “it’s so good,” an appropriate phrase for mealtime – “afela lool.” As P* walked by, I lifted my head from our circle around the bowl and called the phrase out to him. He stopped in his tracks and turned around, smiling and with eyes widened in mock surprise. He called something back to me before walking away. I asked one of the French-speaking women what he’d said; she smiled and responded, “He said you’re Sereer now.”
We spent most of our days around Sereer, but back at the hotel I would switch to “Wolof mode” since that seemed to be the language the hotel staff used. So at breakfast, the man who made our omelets was my Wolof teacher. I set myself the goal of ordering my omelet entirely in Wolof by the end of the week. Thanks to his patience and my pestering, eventually I learned to say, “Dama boge nen avec tomate, sople, et fromage.“ (I’d like eggs with tomato, onions, and cheese)
Now before letting anyone try this at home, I’d warn that there are risks involved (many of which I have yet to experience). Mainly there’s the risk – well, guarantee really – of making a fool of oneself. During the “game” with the Sereer children, one of the girls pointed to (I thought) her earring and said “longlong.” I repeated and wrote it down. And that’s when I got a little too sure of myself. I’d learned the Sereer phrase for “I have no _____,” so I figured I could try forming a sentence since I wasn’t wearing earrings. I said, “Amoul longlong“, quite proud of myself. The kids laughed and looked at each other. Something told me I was a little off in what I’d attempted to communicate. One of the fathers was sitting within earshot and kindly informed me that I’d just happily announced, “I have no ears!”
Oh well. I know I’ll make a much bigger fool of myself before this sojourn is through, especially once I’m living there (Lord willing) in the near future. Thankfully, I should have no trouble finding teachers to guide and correct me.
*This country is a sensitive location, due to its majority Muslim population. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.
Photos by Dick Senzig