Learning French in Togo

In December 2011, I decided to volunteer in Togo in West Africa.

I had a choice between Ivory Coast and Togo, but I went with Togo because I wanted the chance to explore a country that I had never heard of before.

Why Togo of all places? Because Togo is a French-speaking country. Rather than going to an English-speaking country, I wanted to use this opportunity to live French!

When I first arrived in Canada, I wanted to learn French, knowing that Canada is a bilingual country. But I was already a sophomore, and given that I knew no French at all, could not join a class of students who had been learning for a few years.

So at the time, I went out and bought a Teach-Yourself French book that came with CDs for pronunciation. I tried to work through the book, listening to the CD. But I gave up because I thought it was too hard. So French always remained on my list of languages that I wanted to learn, but I guess I never got around to it.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in Lomé, the capital of Togo. Togo is a narrow strip of land located in West Africa bordered on the west and east by Ghana and Bénin. I learned that it used to be under German control, and then came under the control of France following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.

There are around 40 different languages spoken in the country, but it seemed to me that Ewe was the most common, apart from French of course. French was the lingua franca in the country, used in all areas of life, and being used as the intermediary language between different tribes who could not otherwise communicate.

Shortly after my arrival, the other volunteers and I took classes in elementary French. As with most classes, we started with the alphabet and practiced pronunciation. Fortunately, our teacher was an elderly Togolese gentleman who had taught French to the American Peace Corps, and was an eager and patient instructor.

In the first 2-3 months of learning the language, I was working on getting the pronunciation right and practicing the verbs we had learned. Given that I was surrounded by French speakers 24/7, I had so many people to practice with. And given that our lives centered around a daily routine, the things we needed to say were also limited to a set of phrases.

I must say that my knowledge of Spanish did serve me usefully. For instance, it occurred to me while learning the tenses, that some of them, while not identical, were comparable enough such that knowing the conjugations in Spanish helped me more easily acquire the French counterparts.

For example, the simple future tense in French and Spanish seemed similar to me:

être                                                          ser
Je serai                                                    Yo seré
Tu seras                                                   Tú serás
Il/elle sera                                                 Él/ella será
Nous serons                                             Nosotros seremos
Vous serez                                               Vosotros seréis
Ils/elles seront                                          Ellos/ellas serán

This and other similarities between Spanish and French certainly peaked my interest.

In the initial stages of learning the language, I found myself inadvertently mixing in Spanish words amidst the French; for instance, I would find myself saying something like “J’ai besoin de _____ para laver les habits.” The correct word here would be pour, not para.

Another thing was accent. Togolese French is accented in a way that is distinct from say, French of Côte d’Ivoire or Bénin. In particular, the “r” sound, that is uvular in Parisian French, was not produced in the same way by the Togolese. It was rolled by some, and somewhat aspirated by some.

I also heard expressions like “C’est comment?” alternated with “(Comment) ça va?”. Apparently, the former expression is used frequently in the French-speaking African countries. I was met with amused expressions when I uttered this expression in front of French people.

After 5-6 months of living in Togo, I was able to express myself in the range of what I needed to say; that is, in the daily routines of my volunteer duties. in other words, given the range of topics one could talk about, I couldn’t say all that much, but I could speak to the Togolese and joke around as well. During this time, I continued reading this French book I was working on. It was a elementary-level children’s book with pictures, and at the beginning, I literally had to look up more than half the words on the page. But as I started to understand the sentences, the story came alive to me in my brain, and reading the book stopped becoming a chore. I learned a lot of words from this book that I would probably not use ever again, words like anchor, sail, etc., but it was all good practice acquiring new words.

I also tried reading Petit Nicolas, and this book was a great deal easier than the other book, and the stories were cute and funny. I guess one might think reading children’s stories might not be “realistic” language, but given my level at the time, I was quite happy reading about these kids’ adventures as their level of vocabulary and range was suitable enough for me.

I also attempted reading some of Les Misérables in the original French, but now this was a whole different playing field. I got worn out just from looking up all the words, and even when I did look up the word, I would likely forget the meaning of the same word once I got to the text or when the same word appeared in the next few paragraphs.

I also listened to French conversations that I found on LingQ every now and then to keep my ears attuned to French. Now this type of French was more like Parisian French, and so I had difficulty even understanding the basic things they said. Togolese French is quite different. To my pleasant surprise, by the end of 10-11 months, and thereafter when I came back, I found that I could understand those conversations with ease.

Once I got back from Togo, I decided not to let my French go to waste and signed up to take the DELF exam, level B2. Seeing as how I had to do some writing, and given that I didn’t really “formally” learn French, I signed up for some DELF B2 prep classes through Alliance française, which were extremely helpful in preparing for the exam. I took the exam and fortunately, passed.

Nowadays, given that I have been focusing my efforts on Chinese, I haven’t been able to work on French all that much, but I do like to keep it up by going to LanguageCast and speaking to French speakers and listening to conversations on LingQ every now and then. I do want to make plans to get C1 or C2 level in French as well sometime in the future. Maybe I’ll try writing some posts in French as well for practice 🙂

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