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My Global Citizen Toolbox

By Espoir DelMain | Published: October 10, 2017

Espoir and her host mother in Senegalese attire.
Learning from my host moms (or yaye boi in Wolof) 
was one of my favorite parts of my experience.

This past year, I spent six months in West Africa (mostly in Senegal) studying local languages, applying the skills I hadn’t realized I’d gained at Concordia Language Villages. I went to Senegal on a gap year semester course, through Where There Be Dragons, living with host families and independently volunteering with the Jane Goodall Institute. The experience showed me how many great learning tools I already had as I applied them during my jouney into a new culture.

Every such journey is made up of short, fascinating walks. On my walk home from the Manufacture des Arts Décoratifs in Thies, Senegal, I see other people walking, talking on their phones, eating as they gesture to me, saying “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 greetings in Wolof (one of the principal languages of Senegal), asking about family, health and work. I say “Ba chi kanam (see you later)” to Mr. Sen and his friends. As I reach my house, the exhaustion from the heat really hits me just like my little host brother hits me with a hug as I walk in the door.

Living with my host families was the most powerful experience I had during my time in Senegal. I was able to learn in a small community and create personal connections, immersing myself in both the language and the way of life. Though not always easy, learning through immersion is something I’m comfortable with because I attended French immersion elementary school and Concordia. The culture of encouragement and inclusion that I found in Senegal paralleled what I’ve experienced at the Villages, and the tools I learned at camp served me well.

At the Villages, there are strategic phrases for beginners, like “How are you?” “What is your name?” “What are you doing?” The most useful phrase though, is “How do you say ____ in (target language)?”. Using these tools, I realized that through my many years at Concordia, I didn’t just learn language and culture . . . I learned how to learn a language, and how to begin to learn about a culture. 

Espoir with her three little host siblings, Momo, Maguette and Papa.
I had the good fortune to be a part of many wonderful host
families, including the family of Momo, Maguette and Papa 
in Thies, Senegal. 

Being a French speaker in Senegal, I was able to communicate with people around me, who usually spoke French. When I was around non-French speakers, I had the confidence and knowledge to apply my language learning tools. This helped me learn to communicate in Wolof and Pulaar, commonly spoken languages, and use essential greetings in less widespread languages like Djiola and Serer. Learning in a context of necessity, I was able to make progress more quickly, compared to studying language in the traditional classroom. 

The huge diversity of languages in Senegal amazed me. In a country roughly the size of South Dakota, there are more than 32 ethnic languages. This speaks to the age of cultures that exist there. As more people move to the urban centers, where French and Wolof are spoken most widely, there is what people call a “Wolof-ization” of Senegal. This process results in the loss of not only ethnic languages, but also the cultural lore that exists in each ethnic group.

A handmade flyer advertises, in French, a free educational film showing.
Part of my work at the Jane Goodall Institute
was movie night, with a discussion afterwards
connecting themes from the movie to the
local community. 

Through my language learning in Senegal, I was able to create strong connections with the people with whom I lived and worked. Once they saw me investing in learning their languages and cultural norms, they supported me by helping me and being my friends. This engaged them in a project I was doing while volunteering at the Jane Goodall Institute in Senegal, hosting community discussions about conservation. It was extremely powerful for me to see the impact I could have on changing a community for the better. To create change in the world, as I saw firsthand, we need to create interpersonal relationships.

Language learning is an act of global citizenship, and an act of change making, because of its power to create connections and change perspectives across borders and cultures. I credit immersion school and Concordia Language Villages for filling my global citizen toolbox, and Where There Be Dragons for giving me the chance to use those tools out in the world.    

About the Author

Espoir DelMain greets the sun on top of a sunny mountain in Dindefelo, Senegal.

Espoir DelMain is a freshman at Dickinson College majoring in environmental science. She is a member of Climate Generation’s Window Into COP23 program and will attend the United Nation Framework on Climate Change Convention’s 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bonn, Germany next month. Her focus is bringing intersectionality into the conversation on international environmental policy. 

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