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Study French and Wolof in Dakar, Senegal

If you would like to learn French outside of a European context, Senegal is a great option. You can learn one of the world’s most widely-spoken languages while immersing yourself in the rich culture of West Africa. I studied French and Wolof at the Africa Consultants International’s Baobab Center (www.acibaobab.org) in Dakar, Senegal. The school offered quality classes and coordinated a home stay, provided cultural orientations, offered day trips and set me up with a volunteer internship.

Language Courses

The Baobab Center offers intensive French and Wolof language courses. Upon request, classes are available in other national languages such as Pulaar, Sereer, and Joola. The school serves a wide range of students: undergraduates, NGO employees, individual travelers, missionaries, professional expatriots, and Rotary and Fulbright scholars. Teaching such a wide array of students has given the staff the experience to meet the needs of almost any student.

The biggest challenge of studying French in Senegal is that it is the second (or third or fourth) language for most of the Senegalese. This means that while the majority of people you meet will speak French, conversations will almost always begin in Wolof. The majority of the Dakaroise speak Wolof in their homes, with friends, and on the street. Speaking only French may limit you in your interactions with local people. If your language goals are secondary to learning about the culture of Senegal, you should consider learning Wolof as well.

There are two options for the type of classes you want to take. The first is walk-in sign-up. ACI holds a language course welcome meeting on the first Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. for French and Wolof courses. Individuals and pairs are welcome to join. Classes will be formed and schedules set, typically for evening time slots. This is a great way to meet other students you may want to study with. The costs for these classes are 5,000 CFA ($11) per person per hour (3-person minimum), 25-hour course for 125,000 CFA ($54). While I was there, the rate for classes was based on how many students were in the class. Be sure to ask if there is a discount for adding students to a class.

The second option is to have the Baobab Center set up a tailor-made course to meet your specific needs. While this option will cost more, it is a good choice for someone who has limited time to study or has a very specific need for language (e.g. research or work-related).

All of the instructors at the Baobab Center are highly qualified for their positions. Of course, they each have their own unique teaching style and if you find that you teacher’s style or pace does not match your own, do not be afraid to ask about switching teachers. While I was enrolled there, I bounced between several teachers in the beginning. This was a nice way to sample a variety of teaching styles. Eventually, I found one teacher that was a great fit for my learning style and stayed with her for the remainder of my lessons.

The Wolof classes offer a practical workbook. Each lesson centers on a typical dialogue, such as greetings, explaining where you are from, or buying something at the market. Each lesson is realistic and you can begin to use the new vocabulary immediately after learning it. Wolof-English books and dictionaries are rare, so this is a great resource.

Live with a Local Family

The Senegalese are very proud of their teranga, Wolof for hospitality, and there is no better way to experience it than to live with a Senegalese family. Living in a Wolof- and French-speaking house will speed up your language acquisition and give you an insider’s look at the Senegalese culture. If you are taking more than 25 hours of language class, the Baobab Center can arrange a family-stay for you. The host families live within walking distance of the school. Many of them have hosted foreign students in the past and understand what it takes to make a cross-cultural living situation mutually beneficial. One of the unexpected benefits to staying with a host family for me was a social network. I had a host brother my age who often invited my friends and me out dancing. Experiencing the nightlife of Dakar is a must and there was no better way to do so than with an insider who knew the scene. Plus, I soon had a large group of Senegalese friends, something that would have been difficult to come by if I had been living with other travelers in an apartment.

Cultural Orientation

The Baobab Center also offers cultural orientation workshops where participants work and learn from liaisons in the local community about the cultural values of Senegal. I found that this seminar was helpful in understanding some of the more subtle cultural difference, particularly surrounding female-male friendships. It offered some very practical advice on how to navigate through potentially awkward situations. 

At the end of this session the group shares a typical Senegalese meal, ceeb bu jen (fish and rice), eating from a communal bowl, and learning proper meal etiquette. This orientation is offered to groups, so if you are alone, ask the school if there is a study abroad group whose session you could join.

Day Trips

Another benefit of the Baobab Center is the warm, friendly staff that is open to helping you arrange day trips or cultural excursions. While I studied there, staff would often offer to be a guide on these trips. Cost was negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and it was well worth the price to have a familiar face along who knew the city and was a native Wolof speaker. Some of the day trips students took included neighboring Lac Rose, a nearby wildlife reserve, an orphanage, and a nonprofit that educated poor Dakar children and offered them trade apprenticeships. 

Volunteer Internships

The Baobab Center is part of the larger African Consultants International, a nonprofit that does public health work. Through this work, the staff is connected to and respected among the nonprofits and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the city. If you are interested in volunteering at a nonprofit, the advisor at Baobab Center can provide you with a list of people to contact at several nearby organizations based on your area of interest. With that list, you should contact the organization, ask if they have any volunteer opportunities and show them how you can bring value to their organization. Treat this as serious as you would an internship opportunity back home. It is a good idea to have a copy (printed or electronic) of your resume to share with organization. Since they may not speak English, it would be ideal if your resume is in both English and French. 

I volunteered with Tostan (www.tostan.org), an organization that does public health education and works for women’s rights. The experience gave me an inside look at the professional world of Senegal, an large network of Senegalese friends, and the opportunity to give back to the community that had welcomed me so graciously. The highlight of my internship was being able to travel to remote parts of the Senegal to visit various field offices. I was welcomed at each one by trusted staff and shown some of the greatest teranga (hospitality) of my entire stay in Senegal. It also added value to my resume when I returned home and was looking for work. Tostan is always looking for dedicated volunteers and I encourage you to get in touch with them.

Home Away From Home

The Baobab Center is more than a language school—it is a hub of cultural exchange where you can meet people from all over the world who share your passion for learning. It is an unmatched resource for anyone in Dakar looking for ways to learn a new language while immersing themselves in a new culture. What sets them apart from any other language school is that they help you with the complete package of a perfect trip: Language class, home stays, cultural orientations, day trips, and volunteer opportunities. For me, it was such a welcoming place that it began to feel like my home in Dakar. 

Editors Note: Please visit this Flickr group for an eclectic and interesting photo collection from Senegal.