Tuesday marked three months since we arrived in Burkina Faso. Since then we’ve been busy setting up house, seeing the sights, learning how to live and interact here, teaching the children, and learning French. You’ve already heard a lot about these topics from Ryan, but now I (Emily) am going to share with you some of my experiences. Tuesday was not only a big deal for our family, it was also a huge milestone for me: I stepped out of my comfort zone and used the French I’ve been learning!
Since the beginning of April, Ryan and I (and fellow missionary Molly Christensen) have been taking classes at the Institut Français here in Ouagadougou. We also have a private tutor to help us learn a little faster and more thoroughly. We have learned a lot of French this way, and I am really starting to become confident with French. My personality does well with the controlled environment of a classroom. But language is not confined to the four walls of the Institut classroom or my dining room. It’s great if I can write a sentence expressing a need, or describe the person sitting across the room from me, or stumble through a market simulation with my tutor. What I really need to be able to do though is use these skills in real life.
I am naturally a shy person, and Ryan and Molly have been doing their best to encourage me to use the French I know: Esther, our housekeeper, the woman who stops by to sell us fruit, or the women at church. I hadn’t really said much of anything yet, though: greetings, goodbyes, a few words here and there when absolutely necessary. If I’m honest though, I don’t really like talking to people most of the time, even in English. This was not helping my language learning. We had planned that someday – that far-off noncommittal “someday” – Esther, Molly, and I would go to the Grand Marché (the large market) together and go shopping. Terrifying in theory, but not really, because it wasn’t actually going to happen.
We had heard of a smaller market near us and asked Esther if it was worth going to. We were going to take a small family outing on our own on Saturday (and Ryan would do all of the talking). Esther said it was a good market, but she couldn’t show us around on Saturday, so on Monday she’d take me on her motorcycle and we’d shop together. Ryan told her that sounded like a good plan, but Monday was busy. She could take me on Tuesday.
Uhhh…. WHAT! No. This couldn’t happen. I was not ready! How could anyone expect me to go by myself. I’m didn’t know enough French to use it in the market with people I didn’t know. This was NOT a good idea. I was worried.
Saturday we went to look at the market on our own anyway. Once we got there it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. The market wasn’t massive like the Grand Marché. It reminded me a lot of the market we went to in Ghana – only there was no English at this one. Maybe I could do this after all.
Sunday and Monday passed and I was only a little nervous. I practiced what to say with my tutor on Monday and it went well. His only criticism was that my French was a bit too formal the market. The practice went well. I could do well after all!
Tuesday morning came. I was doing okay. Then it was almost time to go. All I could think about was “What if I can’t remember what to say,” or ” What if I can’t understand what they are saying?” “What if I embarrass myself?” I was a mess. I was not ready to do this yet. In fact, I was NOT going! Esther was waiting for me. Molly was already at the market waiting for us to get there. I couldn’t pull myself together. I could not walk out the front door. Ryan finally convinced me that I had to make a decision now: either I was going or not.
I finally got outside our gate and the hardest part was over. I climbed onto the back of Esther’s moto and off we went. I was actually having fun. This wasn’t scary so far. I was still nervous about speaking French, but it was getting better.
We found Molly and entered the market. It was just as I remembered from Saturday, only a little busier. I was glad we had checked things out, because I felt comfortable. Esther led us to some women she knew who were selling things I had on my list. She helped me out a lot by keeping the transactions going and running smoothly (and getting us good prices). I bought a lot of fruits and vegetables: mangoes, bananas, apples, zucchinis, tomatoes, and carrots. I used a combination of French and body gestures to buy what I needed. My French was not always perfect. Sometimes I forgot words and had to describe the item, sometimes my language was good but I was too quiet so they didn’t hear, sometimes I couldn’t understand, sometimes everything was going too fast and I got confused, but sometimes everyone understood!
My market adventure wasn’t perfect. It was a mix of shortcomings and successes, but it was a giant leap in my journey to learning French. I was shoved out of my comfortable box, but I have grown personally and linguistically. I don’t promise next time will be easy. I know it won’t be, and I’m already nervous to go again. But I will be that much more comfortable and able to speak.
Oh, and we finished our course at the Institut this week, and even got the certificates to prove it!