Obies using languages: Dylan McDonnell, ’15

Dylan McDonnell is a member of the Class of 2015 and pursuing a major in musical studies with a concentration in ethnomusicology. In the spring of 2014, Dylan studied in Dakar, Senegal with the Oberlin-affiliated program SIT study abroad. He came into the CILC to talk about his experiences. 

In Senegal most people speak French, but the lingua franca is actually Wolof, a West African language rooted in the Senegal region with influences from French and Arabic.  Dylan took classes and spoke mostly in French with his host family, though he learned to speak Wolof with his host father and siblings, and spent lots of time in town talking to people there.
“I knew maybe three or four words of Wolof before leaving,” he said. “I’ve been to Senegal once before for Winter Term, but most of the Wolof I learned was ‘tourist speak,’” he said. “One of the words I learned was baaxna, which means something similar to ‘stop trying to sell me stuff.’” Though his Wolof started out simply, he said that during his semester studying there, he explored more of the city and met people before going to classes. He also learned some informal Wolof– there is no grammatical formal register of the language, like there is in French. He taught me three different ways to greet someone, with increasing levels of informality: naka nga def, nanga def, and naan def. The levels of formality indicated how well you know someone.

Dylan also talked about some of the cultural differences that he encountered. He mentioned the importance of greetings in Senegalese culture: they signify how well you know someone. When you walk on the street, you ask people you know about everything: their family, house, work, etc…. “I gave myself time before school to prepare to be stopping a lot,” he said. He said that he made friends with lots of people on his walks to school, such as market vendors and security guards.

Upon his return to Oberlin, Dylan noticed some differences in the way he looked at campus. One of the first things he noticed was that there is less interpersonal interaction– Oberlin life is much more centered around time. In Senegal, you can be half an hour late to something because of bus problems or other unexpected delays– you just have to be flexible. He also noticed that it is much easier for to be a vegetarian here in the United States. “It’s hard to find a senegalese vegetarian,” he said. Though he followed a vegetarian diet while at Oberlin, he stopped while he was in Senegal. “The Senegalese diet contains lots of meat and fish–I ate lots of food I wouldn’t have eaten [at Oberlin]. It would have been more expensive there to be a vegetarian.” He said it was “It’s interesting to think about how privileged we are to have such integrated food options.”

He said that the process of learning a language and a new culture made him think about his identity in the world. “Learning a language, I really had to acknowledge that I’m an outsider in many ways– it’s good to know how little you don’t know,” he said.


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