I decided to learn French again (I took 2 French classes in the US about 11 years ago) for my own benefit but this time I would learn French in Africa (Senegal) and as an immersion. It isn’t for work, or at least that isn’t the plan…rather it is for me personally because when I travel I meet many French or French speakers whom I’d like to be able to communicate with…I often meet them, have a conversation in English, then another French person walks in and there goes that conversation…the French speak English (some) but French is easier, better for them, etc so it is preferred. I like getting more out of a culture and one of the best ways is through language…English gets me far, most around the world speak enough to get you somewhere even if not well spoken; Spanish speakers are a huge population…even in Africa there is a country that speaks Spanish (Equatorial Guinea)…then Portuguese also has a big population though less travelers and majority of population is in Brazil – a few countries speak it here in Africa too…well besides those you get Mandarin (extremely useful) but I don’t speak it, Russian with surprisingly a lot of speakers and countries too where it is spoken and then of course there is French…loads of speakers (1st or 2nd language), there are more countries that speak it… than Spanish for instance, and well French is Latin based so naturally easier for me to learn and offers twice the benefits! 😀 That’s why I choose it…yeah.
When I researched for the best places to learn French in Africa, Senegal came up, I wasn’t even considering it before that. I thought I would go to Madagascar and maybe 2 other Francophone countries to learn. It was hard to decide because reviews I read were mixed since they speak French but even more speak Wolof (local language). I decided to give it a shot anyway. No visa for entry is required (unlike most African countries) and I found enough information online to find a place to study for a month. I chose to go through an American woman (she has lived there many years now) who does tours of Senegal, offers homestay and sets up French classes too. (You could also go through the French Alliance or the University…I looked at them too, exams needed…or couldn´t just start whenever). It seemed perfect so I paid and signed up for a month. (If you want this contact info for a visit let me know and I will provide it to you).
Against what French people I met said I found, as a beginner student, that Senegal was great because although Wolof is more widely spoken all Senegalese who go to school must learn French and in Dakar most speak French pretty well. For simple conversation, which is what I needed, this was perfect. Besides the language I found it easy to converse with everyone because they are so very friendly…I couldn’t walk out the door without a conversation on the street or at the beach from someone going the same way or just there. Everyday I had a new conversation to practice my French….mind you most were with boys which meant if they saw me again all would say they love me (one guy even met me through a friend, got my number, said he loved me over chat 2 days later, then asked for a photo because he couldn’t even remember what I looked like…oh man…desperate!…and visa looking…or the shared taxi driver who spoke no French that dropped me off and blurted out I love you after a 10 minute ride…oh boy…in Africa love takes 2 seconds, literally)…ha ha
What I enjoyed was that even though my French was still very broken, slow and confusing as I tried to conjugate, find words and form sentences correctly…Senegalese waited until I figured it out, even those that speak English didn’t lose patience and change languages like I might have found in France, for instance, but instead patiently listened. Also for a Francophone country Senegal follows the French language teaching rules precisely and is well respected for this in France, whereas, I have heard, in other French speaking African countries on the continent, they use more slang and even teach differently (Senegal follows the same curriculum found in France)….now obviously accents change though and words get mixed with local languages plenty like Wolof in Senegal but for me as a beginner it was great.
French for me is far more complex than Spanish or Portuguese…aka difficult (not hardest to learn just more difficult than I thought). I found that nothing (ok very little) of Spanish was similar except the grammatical construction. This did indeed help as I can create sentences more easily and the various verb tenses remained very similar so even though shocked, I was there with them, I understood or even expected the next tense to be taught. Words were however far and few the same instead I found a boat load of English taken directly from French…the amount is literally mindblowing…I knew we had some but there are sooo many and if not the same sound you can find many words with the same spelling. It was hard to see the Latin roots at times, to me word stems seemed to be much more similar to Italian or even Portuguese than Spanish…
Learning French was quite hard as I didn’t recall much from those 2 classes 11 years ago…all was new; I was starting from scratch. My first week was hard as I tried to speak but my lack of words made me throw in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian (from my previous stop) neither of them exactly what I needed. This stage remained until I had more vocabulary to work with…soon the Spanish pull when I didn’t know or the ramble of dictionary words in various languages ended and French remained worrying me that I would forget my hard and long earned Spanish second language. This was not true as while this all happened I often met Senegalese who spoke Spanish my first week (those educated here are quite educated, it is common that they speak about 4 languages – Wolof, French, Arabic – to read the Koran- , then Spanish or Portuguese) whom I could converse with to get by…showing me that words might be forgotten if searching for one but a conversation in one language remains and flows naturally…whew!
By Friday of week 2 I was thrown a curve ball, I was taught 2 past tenses and a future tense….it was a new level that brought the intense course up a huge notch and left me studying all weekend trying to comprehend what it was and how to use it…ouch. From that cannon blast only came more…ha ha 2 more past tenses the next week (week 3) and some other new stuff left me barely hanging on…lol I was tired of the blasts and had virtually stopped absorbing the material since I couldn’t figure it out…it was overwhelming…while at the same time I was conversing more…not enough but things were piecing together a bit. There were daily surprises like giving directions to the taxi driver to get exactly to my door instead of just the main road and a piecing together of words I learned but had not heard or used on the street yet which made me feel on top of the world for a moment. I wondered what one more week could possibly do or where it could get me and if I would surely speak by then. Well amazingly things did start to flow my 4th week, I was reading a bit more and writing more fluidly without looking all words up. I could get around more easily, I was interested in talking more, practice on the streets showed to be effective, chatting on messenger helped learn new words, etc, etc. Then I dropped everything and went to travel for 3 weeks…mixing languages up here and there…studying here and there, still learning but at the speed of a turtle now…hum.
Besides my intense daily French course for a month with Professor Dabo I complimented learning with the Duolingo app, YouTube videos by ‘Learn French with Alexsa’, specific internet searches, newspapers and daily conversations on the streets. I loved the YouTube videos and found them really helpful if you are actually focused on learning. The app I don’t think is effective without classes to support it…lots of practice and vocab though if you do have classes. I also tried the Babel app but much later when I didn’t want to pay for more classes (Babel for 1 month was $15 instead of $75-150 in private) and feel this app actually might teach you better how to speak French alone compared to Duolingo. I didn’t use a book to learn with my professor it was actual daily one-on-one classes that I wrote down in my notebook and to learn the sounds we used the book Mamadou et Bineta (African French must have!)…useful as the French sounds are complex and it’s very important to pronounce and understand letters together sounds like ou (eew) and oi (wah).
It was fun to go through the motions of learning a new language, it is a process that comes slowly with time and determination. I enjoyed the challenge a lot but also had to remind myself not to give up as I was also struggling to even want to be where I was…making it extra challenging to keep at it, especially when the cannon blasts came my way. In December I planned to continue 2 weeks in a new location, Benin, to focus on French. In the end I only took a week of classes at the French Institute there…class sessions were out, exams were taking place so only private lessons were available and well 10,000cfa an hour. I did learn but I felt it a waste of money and decided to explore instead…ending my more formal French lessons. A change with new accents, new professor, scenery, and culture was nice but a renewed focus on the objective dissipated.
***One day I will visit France and take a “proper” class for a few weeks until then I will study and read when I can.
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