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  • Writer's picturewassa123

Language Acquisition and Friendship

Okay so language acquisition and friendship seem like lazy blog post pairings, but here, they’re deeply connected. I’m writing this in late January, five months into my grant, which means that I have fewer days ahead of me than those that have already passed. And that is terrifying. I feel a similar panic as I did in senior spring: I can feel the end nearing, but it doesn’t seem like I’ve accomplished anything. Way back in October, everyone told me that by now I would be fluent in French and have friends outside my cohort and that feels so far from being true.

Let’s start with language. Obviously, Côte d’Ivoire is Francophone, and I assumed that paired with my 3 years of university French and my gift for gab, I would basically be proficient by this point. This is very untrue. While I can navigate certain familiar circumstances (like negotiating a taxi for example), there are still times when I can’t comprehend the most basic questions. Even when I focus all of my attention on a conversation between my colleagues, I only grasp concepts and almost never get the jokes. I’ve become notorious for asking “wait, why are we talking about XYZ?” in the staff room.

And CDI is VERY Francophone. If you do not speak French or any of the street languages, you are, in layman’s terms, fucked. And yet somehow, my French isn’t significantly better than when I got here and neither is my Dula, a language in which I am a native receptive bilingual. And that feels really shitty. I started doing daily Duolingo and working with a French tutor in the Fall, both of which feel ridiculous.


Making friends in any new city is hard, and I kind of have to exclude most men my age as viable potential friends. (more to come on men in CDI later) Again, I’ve been here for five months, but I don’t have many friends who aren’t ex-pats, English speakers, or affluent Ivorians (if not all three). I have great relationships with my colleagues, and I’m very friendly with a couple of local people, but I don’t currently have a native Ivoiran that I would call up on a Friday night to hang out.

As I reflect on my friendships here, I think about what a friend told me: sometimes it’s difficult to figure out if people want to be friends with you or because of what you represent. Are we friends because we generally get along or because it’s cool to have an English-speaking American on your Instagram? If I weren’t this mysterious foreigner, would you be interested in getting to know me? My experience with friendship here reminds me of the exchange students we would receive in high school: they’re super popular the first few weeks, but I’m not sure how many people gave the time of day after the first month.

I am also a bit to blame here. I am a homebody by nature and I’m not exactly extroverted when I meet new people, especially when there’s a language barrier. The result is a relatively sheltered, expat-heavy life. But that is so far from what I want. I didn’t move halfway across the world to basically replicate my life in New York.

I’ve been complaining for most of this post, but I promise these two topics are related. It seems to me that the answer to one of my problems is working on the other. My French isn’t going to improve if I don’t find people who force me to speak French. But the likelihood of me finding people like that in my current circles is pretty low, even though I am close with many native French speakers. As any polyglot can share, once you’ve cemented a relationship in a particular language in your head, it can be really really hard to change that.

The blessing and curse of English as a de facto international language means that I will never be without other English speakers, but I also feel this insurmountable pressure to indulge anyone who wants to improve, inevitably at the expense of my own language acquisition. As I mentioned in my post about teaching English abroad, I know fluency is an invaluable tool, so I will never deny anyone exposure to the language. I just wish someone would extend that intention to me.

I suppose this post is both a reflection and a public declaration of intention; I need to branch out. I’m hoping that my latest internship with a local woman’s library will push me out of my comfort zone, but the ticking clock demands a leap of faith, even if I’m not sure what that looks like just yet. Hopefully in June, I’ll be writing again with a few new friends and a solid French vocabulary under my belt. Wish me luck.

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