Where should I go and what do I need to learn to speak?
November 15, 2007 2:21 PM   Subscribe

What African language should I learn and how should I go about it?

I am currently in school and I will be finished in about two years. I am studying to be a midwife (direct-entry CPM). I am also rigorously self-studying basic village style "Where there is no doctor" style health-care.

After I graduate and take the NARM and finish my certifications, I am absolutely certain that I wish to travel to Africa. I know it may sound grandiose, but my dream is to go to severely impoverished places and set up (eventually self sustaining) clinics where I will train locals. I want to spend at least five years in Africa moving from place to place.

I'm a local activist right now, and I have become semi-disillusioned about working for already established groups and I would like to do this entirely on my own so I can do it exactly how I want to. Thankfully, I come from a well-monied family and I have many connections from my current activism so I am sure I will be able to fund this on my own.

Where in Africa should I start planning and preparing to go? I want to go to a place where
a)the clinics I plan to set up will be needed
b)the resources I will need to learn the native tongue are available in the states. I want to start learning the language now so I am at least semi fluent when I arrive
c)I don't expect to be completely safe and I accept the higher risk of injury/death I'll be taking, but I'd like to go somewhere where the political situation is stable enough that the work I do will be able to take hold and won't live in fear 24/7.

At this point, based on my own research, I'm about to start studying Swahili. Basically, I just wanted to check and see what the hive mind thinks since I don't really know as much as I'd like to about Africa.
posted by skjønn to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Ironmouth at 2:32 PM on November 15, 2007

French, VSO
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:44 PM on November 15, 2007

Thirding French.
posted by fire&wings at 2:47 PM on November 15, 2007

What you want to do sounds exactly like the modus operandi of Partners in Health. I know you said you want to do this on your own, but I just wanted to throw their name out there in case you hadn't heard of them and wanted to consider working with them somehow.

If you know of them and aren't interested in them for some reason, just ignore this comment, and I'm sorry for the tangent.

Best of luck...what you want to do sure is admirable and I hope it works out well for you and the people you'll be helping.
posted by greenmagnet at 2:52 PM on November 15, 2007

I think you should figure out where to go first. French is a great choice in much of Africa, but not everywhere and not necessarily in the most impoverished areas. It does have the advantage of being quite learnable in just two years though.

Swahili's a great second choice - spoken over a wide area and as a second language by many. But probably nothing would be as perfect as a situation wherein you know exactly where you're going and learn the local tongue. I've always been partial to Wolof, which is a cool language and spoken in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. It's also *not* a tonal language (unlike many) which means you sidestep at least one issue.

Of course, Arabic is helpful in Saharan Africa and down much of Africa's eastern coastal areas.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:53 PM on November 15, 2007

Depends on where in Africa you want to go. This map gives a rough idea of what languages are more prominent in what areas.

Arabic is dominant in all of Northern Africa including Sudan. French or English covers all of Western Africa. Swahili may be the official language of the African Union, but it only sees common usage in equatorial countries like the DRC and Tanzania. Southern Africa is mostly English-speaking, except for Mozambique, where it's all Portuguese. South Africa itself hosts a lot of languages, but English is among them.

I don't know where you're located, but the chances of finding good instruction in French are likely much better than Arabic or Swahili. Figure out where you want to go, what your chances of finding a decent instructor are and go from there.
posted by Nelsormensch at 2:53 PM on November 15, 2007

It depends on where you want to go. If you want to go to the northwest part of Africa, French is very necessary. Arabic would be useful in the northeast, though you'd still need to do a lot of study once you got there to learn the regional dialect. Swahili would work in some areas but not others. There are no continent-wide languages in Africa.
posted by Anonymous at 2:55 PM on November 15, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. Part of the problem is I don't know exactly where I should go. I am open to suggestion to anywhere on the continent. I really just don't know enough about Africa in general to make the decision on my own.
posted by skjønn at 3:03 PM on November 15, 2007

Seconding French, at least until you can narrow down your countries of interest a little more and can begin to study a more local language in detail.

The African Union's working languages are Arabic, English, French, Swahili, and Portuguese; of those, French and English are, far and away, spoken by the most people in sub-Saharan Africa: Wikipedia says 115 million people speak French as a first or second language in Africa, with over 300 million people living in African countries where French is an official or commonly-spoken language. Swahili tops out at about 90-100 million.

French is also much cheaper and easier to learn as well - pretty much every community college in America will offer French classes to a sufficient level to get you started. (PS: Perhaps you should post your location so answerers can give you more specific advice.)

As far as where to go, I lived in Ghana teaching for a summer and loved loved loved it, and I had a great time in Senegal too. Both of these places receive quite a bit of tourism (for Africa, at least) - perhaps it'd be worth getting out there on vacation first to see how it feels. Both countries are (for Africa) stable, peaceful, and democratic, and also have big communities of expats in Britain and France, respectively, so perhaps connecting with those groups (or expat groups for any country, really) could give you some ideas where to go.

Also, the Financial Times just ran a big section on Cape Verde, which has a high Human Development Index for the region (0.722, below Jamaica and above Vietnam), and is facing some unique challenges owing to its progress out of least-developed status. There's a big Cape Verdean community in Boston, southeast Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and I wonder if any community groups in those areas could point you in the right direction.

Last thing, I promise: I understand your reluctance to go to Africa through a huge organization, but keep in mind the fact that little work of this kind is successfully done alone and unsupported. You'll need help in the States to learn a language and identify a good place to set yourself up, and perhaps to help you with paperwork and bureaucracy once you've settled on a particular place you'd like to go.

Final, devil's-advocate link here.
posted by mdonley at 3:18 PM on November 15, 2007

if you don't want to live in fear I discourage you from going to any of the following (at least for the moment): DRC, Congo-Brazza, Liberia, Chad, Burundi, Guinea, Sudan, Northern Uganda.
posted by barrakuda at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2007

If you're interested in learning an African language, then I would suggest Hausa. It is, if I'm not mistaken, the language that's spoken by more people than any other African language, and about 4 times as many people as Swahili; 40 million people in Nigeria and in Niger and around West Africa speak Hausa.

Nigeria is also the most populous country in Africa, so if you're going to see people, Nigeria might be an interesting choice. It's very diverse, as far as language, as well, but Pidgin English and Hausa can get you by, from what I've heard.
posted by koeselitz at 3:31 PM on November 15, 2007

I've traveled in Ethiopia so I'm partial to Amharic but it looks like there are a bunch of African languages available on FSI Language Courses. Maybe you could spend some time going through the courses there until you find a language you enjoy learning.
Definitely plenty of opportunites to do that sort of work in Ethiopia, however, just learning Amharic would likely be insufficient as there are so many different languages spoken.
posted by metaname at 6:45 PM on November 15, 2007

i'd go with french, because it's so widely spoken as a second language. it will give you more options. africa is a linguistic superstore--there are so many languages, and so many that are mutually incomprehensible to each other, that you probably shouldn't learn the local lingo until you decide where to go.

besides, your support systems will probably be in french--i am assuming you will have to be ordering some supplies from somewhere or consulting (or networking) every once in a while with doctors in the cities. in which case, french is the way to go.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:16 PM on November 15, 2007

One thing you might want to consider regarding learning French is that, though it's very widely spoken, it's the language of a former colonial power, and you as a non-African (even if you're African American, you'll be seen as American first, and Black as a far second) may want to rigorously minimize being viewed as a do-gooder outsider who's come to provide yet another handout. This is obviously incredibly complex, and there are a million other cultural colonialism worries you'll have to take on as well, but you might want to consider your chosen language's role (or the role of its primary speakers, rather) in a place's history...

That said, I have no language suggestions!
posted by soviet sleepover at 7:51 PM on November 15, 2007

Yoruba is also widely spoken (also in Nigeria, among other places) and I've seen it taught at American universities. It and Hausa have more native speakers than Swahili.

The numbers for Swahili come mostly from second-language speakers; when you do consider second-language speakers, Swahili beats Yoruba and ties Hausa.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:38 PM on November 15, 2007

If you want to learn an African language to develop yourself, then pick anyone. If you want to learn an African language to help other people, then learn french.

It will be impossible for you to effectively communicate in Swahili or anything, particularly when people there speak very good English.

Also, I think your project has about a 90% chance of failure. First understand a country, before trying to setup anything, PARTICULARLY where you come in with money. People want your money, and they don't care about clinics.

Your dream is an idealists dream, and if you start with such unrealistic idealist goals as wanting to learn the local language of people who speak good french and english, then it's even more likely your nobel ideals will translate well into reality.

I'll give you one tiny piece of information: Of the people who actually stick it out doing Aid work in Africa, the U.S must have the lowest percentage. U.Sians who go to African never want to look reality in the face, and that's why they fail.

Take things slow and go step by step.
posted by markovich at 11:11 PM on November 15, 2007

Respectfully, you're putting the cart before the horse. You need to go to Africa first, travel around, see where it is that you think you can help. Frankly, and I hate to discourage you, but on your own, you are quite likely to set yourself up for failure. I'd humbly suggest a dose of humility and perhaps considering at least joining a big operation for a year or two and getting some field exposure and figuring out how things really work over here.

The biggest thing to know about Africa at this point is that you don't know anything.

I'm in Africa at the moment working with one of the big orgs (World Vision). Yes, it has its bureaucracy and problems and all of that. And, they are actually helping people, too, sometimes.

I just got back from Zambia last week and here's a few things that struck me there:

Outside of the cities, it is essentially as third world as you can get. Like many of the countries I've seen, even in the cities, the basic amenities we have in the states are iffy at best. But in the countryside, they are non-existent - no power, no running water, no basic latrine systems, etc.. Bringing one pallet of mosquito nets to a village can work wonders. Setting up a school or clinic for a few of the local tribes can change thousands of lives for the better. (I might point out that what I like about WV is that their philosophy is to ask the community leaders what it is they most need, and then that's what WV helps deliver, but I digress.)

Their country is ravaged by malaria, HIV / AIDS, and a host of other killers (nutrition, etc.) that basically keep them crippled in their third world state. They're not the only country in Africa like this. There are plenty of places you can go to help, but only you can determine what the right one for you is. And to do that, you have to go there.

Zambia has something like 72 tribal languages, and if its the people in the most need that you most want to help, my friend, you are going to be out there in with the tribes, not in some urban area where people speak the national / colonized language (be it Zambia or some other nation).

Take things slow and go step by step.

Ditto that. Here's what I wanted to do. Here's what I'm doing instead. I still think I'll get to my end goal, but now I'm doing it a little more realistically.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:10 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

There used to be something in American education called Area 6 study grants, funded by an entity no less than the state dept (the liberal aspect of the state dept.) that funded graduate studies that included the study of an African language. My friend studied Public Health Administration and took Hausa, which made her eligible for a grant that paid her education. One day on a whim, she asked at the State Dept about the Area 6 records - she wanted to see her own - and found the records floating around in a flooded basement room at the State Dept. She eventually worked for several international health organizations, and even translated "Our Bodies, Ourselves" into Hausa - a notoriously male oriented Muslim society. She got around that by titling the translation "Woman's Book" and selling it through independant market women dealers - no man would ever touch a book called "Woman's Book." Never had a problem.

I don't know if such grants still exist - worth calling an African language program at one of the formerly Area 6 funded Universities such as UCLA, U of Michigan or Boston University, and asking. (Similar grants pay for people to study strategically useful languages such as Farsi, Pushtun, and Arabic these days.)

I studied Yoruba - not an easy language because of the unique tone system, but it turned out to be fun and learnable and I still use it often on startled Nigerians in Balkan train stations.

In terms of easy and widespread... Hausa has a reputation for "easy", as does Swahili, Mandinka, and Wolof (grammar and syntaxes that English speakers find approachable, less complex tone systems). All Bantu languages have a unique system of noun classes that gets more complex the farther south you go - Swahili's system is the easiest, but when you get to South African languages it takes a while to assimilate the twelve or so noun classes - when you do, however, it makes those languages (such as Zulu or Sotho) incredibly logical and seemingly foolproof.

If you do find a situation in which learning the local language is necessary, you would probably be learning hat language, which could be a less major language, depending on the area (Gengbe in Togo or Kanuri in Chad, for example. Or any of the Sudanese languages spoken by Darfur refugees) In which case you would probably be learning it on the ground as you work. Africans have an amazing talent for picking up languages and make great teachers - a lot of my friends have picked up working knowledges of languages by staying in Africa for a year or so.

If you really want to help, and have access to funding , talk to some foundations that work in Africa and get training - you will be far more effective with a well-connected support network behind you that will put you in touch with knowledgable Africans. Africa has stymied a lot of well-meaning do-gooders and outside missionary types.
posted by zaelic at 5:37 AM on November 16, 2007

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