Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pulaar and Wolof (But French Just In Case)

Pulaar is a great language for navigating the south of Senegal and even West Africa in general. As the second most prominent language on the whole continent, I was pretty content with it as my given local language. Before installation at site in the southeastern arrondisement (sub-regional city) of Pakour in the region of Kolda, I spent two months living with a Pulaar family in the big city of Mbour. Residing about an hour and a half outside of Dakar, the family made a concerted effort to only speak Pulaar during my stay, but in reality they would have been much more comfortable mixing in the most popular Senegalese and more northern prominent language of Wolof. A fact that would later be confirmed upon my future visits to their compound.

When travelling in Senegal you are hard-pressed to find Pulaar-speakers north of the The Gambia. Among the many other ethnicities (and consequently languages) including Sereer, Mandinka, Jolla, Bajaraanke, and Bambara the vast majority of people will also speak Wolof.  Generally the bigger the city in Senegal, the more Wolof you will find. Also, any national or international office or business (banks, post offices, mayor’s office, community rural, governmental officials, Orange Phone Service, police, gendarme, military) anywhere in the country will most likely be run by Wolof-speakers.

Travel is also, for the majority, run in Wolof/by Wolof-speakers. When you walk into a garage, hail a taxi, negotiate for baggage prices for a car, bus, or mini-bus, you are likely working with someone that either learned Wolof as his first language or is accustomed to dealing in Wolof.  It is for this reason that the Peace Corps prefers to reserve sites far from the capital for volunteers with a strong French background. Those volunteers will then learn a more minority local language while being able to rely on their French, the official national language, for travel.

I studied French for 12 years before coming to Senegal but had never been to a French-speaking country and was thus afforded with a wealth of vocabulary but a lack of fluency and confidence in my proficiency. Since my arrival, I have solidified the fluency I’ve been striving for, however, in my opinion, this does not suffice Senegal.  With one glance a vendor or apprenti (ticket seller on the back of a vehicle) has sized me up as an ignorant tourist, and French-speaking only serves to confirm this prejudgment.  Immediately I become the subject of inflated prices and ostentatious speaking.

Fortunately my living situation with 5 Wolof-speaking teachers has afforded me a convenient and quick means of picking up the language.  When conversing with them, we all speak French, Mr. Gaye (an exceptional English teacher) and I can speak English, they teach me Wolof, and I teach them Pulaar. With a lot of patience on their part, now I can even hold down a conversation in Wolof.  This fourth language has become my travel language of choice.  In Wolof, I’m no longer some touristy Toubab (westerner/white person) lost in the world hoping for someone to hold my hand. In Wolof, I’m an insider who has his wits about him…and I can always fall back on French when things get hairy.


  1. Hi Curtis,

    On behalf of the Peace Corps' Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services, thanks for sharing your experiences in Senegal through your blog. We especially liked this post on the different applications of Pulaar, Wolof, and French in everyday life. It's interesting to read about how the many languages mesh together in different social situations. I found this same kind of thing as a Volunteer in Guatemala, where Spanish is the national language, but the native tounge for basically everyone in my town was the indiginous Mayan language K'iche'.

    Thank you for participating in Peace Corps' Third Goal of sharing other cultures with Americans, and keep up the good work!

  2. Hello Curtis,
    Thank you so much for your stories of your stay in Senegal. An experience only you and your Peace Corps volunteer associates will ever know what it takes to be in the many different situations you've come across in your travels. We're coming on two years this August. Believe me you, you are thought of every day and we are very proud of your work there, as I am sure there are many many people you have helped that are just as proud to be your friend and extended family.We also thank all whom take care of our son, in all travels he encounters. I'm sure I haven't heard most since Curtis feels best to tell me later so I don't worry! But, I am looking forward to many long nights with long stories, so keep up those journals for reference.
    Love, Mom