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Building Friendships Through Language Learning

SEN Elsa 2

Elsa M. YES Abroad Senegal 2023-2024

I still remember the surprise and excitement I felt when I learned I was going to Senegal. I wanted to explore a new country and discover its way of life. I knew some French, the country’s official language, but I wanted to more directly connect with Senegalese people, so I tried to find useful expressions online and even bought a Wolof, a local dialect, phrasebook to help me learn.

While in Senegal, I have focused all my energy on getting to know the city, my host family, and the community. The conversations I have had in French have been invaluable, but the frequent usage of Wolof in my everyday life has made me want to understand it. I wanted to be in the loop, so I refocused and started incorporating useful Wolof phrases into my daily vocabulary. I made a list of French expressions I wanted to learn in Wolof. At school, I carried my list around, asking my classmates to help me translate and add other essential phrases to know. As I handed my notebook to one of my friends, an idea came to me: there are many more spoken languages than Wolof and French in Senegal. I asked my friend to add some phrases in Sérère, and her face lit up. She took my notebook for the day and all through our classes I saw her meticulously writing down phrases in her careful cursive. When she was done, she walked me through the pronunciation and meaning of each word, making me repeat them back to her as we went. We were outside, milling around with our classmates waiting for gym class to start. Others in the class came over to see what we were doing and soon everyone was trying to learn some Sérère and exchanging phrases in their own languages, from Jola to Pulaar.

SEN Elsa 3

This sharing of languages seemed to unify the class, and it made me realize my true exchange goal: connecting with my host community. Learning bits and pieces of different languages spoken in Dakar has given me an easy opening to start conversations with people and get to know them better. By directly communicating with Senegalese people, I have been able to grow closer with them and learn from them. We have spent our lunch hour discussing everything from Senegalese traditions and laws to religious beliefs and ethics.

By searching for ways to get better at an unfamiliar language, I instead learned the simple importance of communication. By working to express myself daily in another language, I learned it was the usage that was important. Having a means to directly communicate with my host community has helped me create strong relationships with them while learning about the culture of Senegal.