From his time in the Peace Corps to working as an international aid worker, Scott Webb, Program Officer with the Food Security unit of the IRD (International Relief & Development), has learned and used many languages in his work. Here, Scott tells us where, how, and why he learned his languages and shares some good advice for anyone speaking French in former French colonies.
By Scott Webb
“Du pain, s’il vouz plait,” I said.
“Du quoi?” the waitress replied.
“Du pain,” I repeated. She raised her chin and stared at me, shrugging her shoulders slightly before looking around for something else to do.
“Quoi?” she said again. This went on for another three rounds before I pointed to some bread that another customer was eating and hand gestured that that’s what I had wanted. I felt dejected and incompetent in speaking French when she finally repeated back to me – “Oh, d’accord, du PAIN…”
I was in Benin, a tiny little francophone country on the Gulf of Guinea, located on the west coast of Africa. Benin is next door to Niger, the country where my wife and I served as Peace Corps volunteers from 1997-2001 and where I learned all my French. I had taken one quarter of French at UC San Diego my last semester, which I had taken on a lark because I needed the units and I liked the way it sounded. Little did I know that my quarter of French would help take me to West Africa where my career would be defined.
I am an international aid worker; I work for IRD an international NGO that does humanitarian projects all over the world, mostly funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNHCR, and the World Food Program (WFP). I manage IRD’s Food Security projects in Niger. This is the culmination of all my graduate studies and it’s where I pointed myself after I left Peace Corps Niger in 2001.
What languages do you use in your work?
Aside from my quarter of formal French training before Peace Corps, I learned about eighty percent of my French in Niger, in particular during my last 10 months when I lived in a city and had to work in a more office-like setting. I picked up a lot on my own, through immersion, as well as from a patchwork of professional and non-professional tutors.
In the beginning of my service, I also learned Fulfulde, a widely spoken West African language, mostly spoken by semi-nomadic goat herders – not the most marketable language. I used this language for about 18 months while we lived in our mud huts in a rural village of 500 people in southwestern Niger. I had about 10 weeks of formal training during my Peace Corps pre-service training, and as Niger is a francophone country, the class was taught in French, which was super challenging.
I then learned a little bit of Hausa, which is the majority language in Niger and Nigeria – there are probably over 100 million Hausa speakers in the world. BBC, the Chinese, VOA, Germans, all have radio broadcasts in Hausa, and there are newspapers and websites in Hausa.
What were your go to tools to help you in your language learning?
My habit for a while was to listen to RFI – Radio France International, which is broadcast all over West Africa on FM. Listening to the news was easier than watching movies or TV, as informal, slang-laden France-French is super hard for me to hear. The news is being read clearly and formally for the most part. I would sit there with a dictionary and my favorite resource, the Kendris 501 French Verb book. It’s been my experience that when you nail verb conjugation, you sound great, regardless of your accent.
When speaking your target language, it’s important to know your audience.
As for accents – where I’ve had to speak French, that is, in West Africa – I’ve never felt the need to make myself sound Parisian. I rarely do the guttural French “R.” I concentrate on getting the vowels right, correct and appropriate conjugation, and gender agreement. When I’ve seen Americans trying to speak perfect Parisian French with West Africans, they understand but they don’t really care.
You have to remember that French is their colonial language – they speak it, but some people don’t like that they speak it. That’s not to say that there isn’t a vibrant African Francophone literary community – there are plenty of erudite Francophone Africans speaking very good Frenchy-French. But you also have heads of state speaking French with heavy local accents, simply because it’s still their official language. Even though it’s colonial, it’s the least bad option as countries like Benin and Togo can have dozens of dialects, Niger has four big languages – but you need a lingua Franca.
How do you use your target language in your work now?
My last trip to Niger was in March 2012 for about 3 weeks. I ended up translating a lot, switching back and forth between English and French for my non-francophone colleagues. Just like when I was in Peace Corps, I found that people would quickly learn what words I knew and would adapt to speaking French that they knew I could hear. As soon as I would start using a new word, it would creep into my local colleagues’ speech. I’m going back in a few weeks for another 2-3 week trip.
I still concentrate very hard when I order extra bread, that’s one word I need to get right, especially after a long day at work.
After serving in the Peace Corps, Scott attended San Francisco State University for his graduate studies and the Monterey Institute of International Studies where he studied international program management, continued his French language learning, and from where he recently won the Alumni Volunteer Service Award. He has also taken French language courses at the Alliance Française of San Francisco.