The whole experience is like some horrible reverse Sapir-Whorf experiment. Their theory, for those who haven’t had to learn it, is that the words in a language control the way that you’re able to experience a world. If you do not have a word for an emotion or a relationship or a color, those things do not exist for you, generally. Even if you’re aware of them, you’re not able to communicate them to other people.
Here, I have all of the words I could possibly need in English, but none of them in French. I can’t be funny if I don’t know any jokes. I can’t talk about politics if I don’t know the word for “foreign policy.” I’m as funny as I want to be in my head, but I am painfully stern as far as the Senegalese are concerned.
I think this, more than anything, is why all of the American students in my program insist on speaking to each other in English, rather than French or Wolof. If you spend all of your time at home having to pretend to be this other, sterner person, you begin to feel like you’re stuck in a play where you only understand about half the lines and are consistently failing at playing your part. It’s profoundly uncomfortable.
If I couldn’t joke with the other students in my program, I’d be really unhappy. I’m sure the same is true for anyone who operates primarily in a second (or third, or fourth) language. It does make me wander at what point of proficiency this stops being true—whether it’s ever possible to feel like you’re being fully yourself in a non-native tongue.
I’ve had several professors who grew up speaking other languages, and they are certainly all able to not only joke, but to make puns in English. They spend much of their professional lives operating in a language that isn’t theirs, and I think many of them speak English in their personal lives at least some of the time. Clearly they feel enough like themselves that they’ve established lives and roles where they operate in English.
It’s a side effect of the privilege English as a native language gives me that I will in all likelihood never have to fully live a life where I’m expected to operate in another language unless I opt to do so (like now). I don’t know how well this program is going to succeed in its goals to make me better at French, but if nothing else it has at least forced me to explore issues of language in my own life. I still don’t have any answers one way or the other about it, but if I wanted those I suppose I wouldn’t be in the social sciences to begin with.