Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Who Learned French to Make a Difference
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Derrick—a San Jose State University graduate whose passion for teaching, and the Peace Corps, has led to a new language, fast friends, and professional experiences in multiple African countries.
1. In 2014, your Peace Corps service was interrupted when your cohort was evacuated from Sierra Leone. Despite that, you reapplied and served in Burkina Faso from 2014 to 2017. What sparked your determination to serve in the Peace Corps?
My cousin used to send me post cards from Tanzania where he served in the early 2000s. They were filled with amazing experiences of both adventure and volunteerism: That’s what got me interested. I already had an interest in serving others at home, but some of the adventures I knew I couldn’t get where I was. Also, honestly, I was bored of living in the same place for so long that I wanted to get out. As much as I wanted to work within communities to share what knowledge I had accumulated over the years, I wanted to have a good time overseas.
2. Before your service you did not have any prior proficiency in French. What did it feel like to arrive in West Africa without an understanding of the language, and how did you overcome that obstacle?
When applying to Peace Corps Burkina Faso, the guidelines said you had to have prior experience in a romance language: I didn’t. They still took me and let me arrive with zero knowledge of French. In my head I believed, “Well, you’ve got to learn it if you want to survive… It will be fine, you’re a hard worker.” It wasn’t fine. I spent the first couple months of pre-service training feeling like an idiot and contemplating quitting and signing up for an English speaking country. Staff members were unfamiliar with dyslexia and were not sympathetic to my slow learning process.
With the help of some of my peers, I decided to stick it out. I overcame the obstacles of learning French by not beating myself up about learning French.
I was also lucky enough to have a volunteer close to me who wasn’t afraid to interrupt me if I sounded like a fool or to laugh with me when I confused the word “body” with “heart.” It became OK to mess up, say inappropriate things, and have Burkinabé laugh at me.
It was once I left the high stress of pre-service training that I started to learn from my mistakes and not be frustrated by them. In all, it was the environment in which I was learning French that overcame the obstacle of learning a new language.
3. Now your language skills are thriving, and you’re teaching English at WACA (West African College of the Atlantic) in Senegal—another French speaking country. What is some advice you have for those who are just starting out on their language learning journey?
Let yourself mess up, let yourself say inappropriate things in the most inappropriate of times. They will just be funny stories down the road when you have become proficient in a new language.
In addition, everyone single one of us learns differently and classrooms typically teach in one way.
Don’t compare yourself to other people who are learning a language: It won’t solve any of your problems.
Finally, go experience the language on your own, don’t use others as a crutch, order your own food, discuss prices at a market, and get lost.
4. Can you tell us a funny or poignant anecdote about learning French in a West African village?
I got hit by a car while riding my bike one day. I kept telling people that “I got hit hiding my bike,” when I was trying to say, “I got hit riding my bike.” I was pretty banged up and emotional about it, because the driver kept going and I was really looking from some sympathy (I believe it was Week 4 at site, so I was transitioning…).
All I really wanted was a hug —where hugs happen to be socially inappropriate (our staff is literally trained on how to give hugs)—but I was met with looks of confusion. I interpreted that as, “This idiot can’t even ride a bike.”
Really, I was just making a confusing sentence. I would have been confused, too, if I saw someone with road rash and bruises, and his excuse was that he was hiding his bike…
5. What role do language and cultural skills play in your future career plans?
They play a huge role in my career and life.
Everywhere you go there will be groups of people who are different from you. Just in California, I could go from LA to San Francisco and have to deal with some major cultural differences. Just recently someone from LA was telling me all about the magical powers a “sound bath” can provide. As I have never “sounded bathed” before, I had to be open to listen about it, even if I thought it sounded weird to me.
The skill I will use most is being OK with the strange and what I may perceive to be incorrect.
BONUS QUESTION: What is your most memorable experience from your Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso?
This is a hard question. There were numerous events that happened during Peace Corps that I will never forget, and many that I wish I could forget. But the one I’ll mention are my dinners with Adama.
Adama was a 12-year-old boy who was also my best friend. He lived next door, and we pretty much did everything together. Honestly there could have been a comic written about us. We had matching outfits, inside jokes, secret handshakes, and most importantly we just talked. A lot of those talks were at dinner time between his runny nose and heavy breathing brought on by spicy foods.
There is nothing epic about them, nobody will ever be able to understand what they meant to me, so I won’t try. But shout outs to the little dude: “woui, woui, woui!”
Languages open doors in circles more widely than you might imagine. As Derrick can attest, French is spoken in about two dozen African countries, as well as other places throughout the world! Start your global French adventure by checking out programs, scholarships, and stories on our Lead with French page. Or perhaps you are a seasoned language learner and have advice to share with beginners who are determined to persevere: Tell us @LeadWLanguages on social media.