Parlez-Vous Anglais?

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“Do you speak English?” It’s a common refrain for Americans living or traveling abroad, harboring the hope that the native they’re speaking to will at least speak enough English to get them to the train station on time or tell them where that elusive they-say-it’s-amazing restaurant is hiding. But in Dakar? Well, good luck.

Many Europeans speak English as a second language – and often well enough to be like a first language – because of their strong education system, with dual language training beginning in the early elementary-school years. But, as you might imagine, Africa’s education system isn’t that advanced. Those lucky enough to get an education at all (only 41.9 percent of Senegal’s population is literate – although I would venture to guess it’s much higher here in the capital city) aren’t rigorously studying English, and most people here already know two languages, French and Wolof, the local dialect.

Those who do parlez the anglais are likely working in service roles, as household help for Americans or at restaurants frequented by expats. I’m lucky that I studied French all eight years of high school and college, and although I still have a long way to go before I consider myself fluent, I can at least help us maneuver around, order food, read grocery labels and directions, etc.

Josh is a different story; because we expected to be in Washington, D.C., for at least another year, his (welcome) surprise assignment to Dakar gave him little time to prepare in terms of language. He was in overseas training specific to his job in the months leading up to our departure, often with tests and quizzes to study for at home in lieu of learning French verbiage. I tried to arm him with at least basic greetings and how to order from a menu, and he’s been picking up additional words and phrases pretty quickly since we arrived. I can’t imagine, though, coming to Dakar as a single person with no prior French training. Even a simple exchange like buying additional pre-paid cellular phone minutes from a street vendor would be a huge task.

The biggest challenge for me, I think, has been comprehending what the locals are saying back to me. I can formulate my own sentences and convey what I want pretty easily, but I often have to ask people to repeat themselves when they respond. They’re gracious and understanding, but I’d like to leave Dakar in summer 2013 feeling much more advanced on this front. Africans speak slower than Parisians do, which is an advantage for me – but if, say, I ask a question about a menu item and the waiter asks if I want it fried or steamed and I don’t understand either of those words, I miss the entire point of the reply.

It can be frustrating at times, especially after so many years of French study (although a five-year gap between study and consistent use has rusted my skills considerably – and I wasn’t the world’s greatest French pupil to begin with), but I can already tell the language immersion is helping. Hopefully the day will come when I feel confident breezing out the door and ordering a butternut squash and a kilo of eggplant from the vegetable stand down the street without rehearsing my request in my head first and praying for an easily understandable reply.

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