Language Mistakes


I’d like to start this off by saying that I was originally hoping to write about another part of Senegalese culture in this blog post. After my latest language mistake, however, it’s only fitting that I share some (painful) stories about my language speaking abilities.

I like to think I’m fairly adventurous when it comes to learning and practicing languages. Unfortunately, this also means I’m particularly prone to saying things I didn’t originally mean to say (my apologies in advance for the crude language.)

In another post I mentioned that my host sister Fatou Kiné held her 20th birthday party at our house a couple of weeks ago. While there I spent a lot of time with my cousin Lamine and one of his friends, both of whom kept trying to convince me to speak in Wolof. No problem, I thought; I had a whole list of Wolof phrases floating around in my head that I was ready to use. When it came time for lunch I told Lamine and his friend that I wanted to drink ataaya (the Wolof word for tea.) The look on both of their faces let me know I had said something wrong. “What did I say? What did I say?!” I asked. “You told me you…you told me that you…” (At this point Lamine could barely form a sentence because he was laughing so hard.) “You told me that you wanted to drink me!” My eyes went wide. “No ça n’est pas ce que j’ai voulu dire!” (That’s not what I wanted to say!) I tried to say over laughter, practically yelling.

My worse mistake, however, is the inspiration behind this post. Two days ago I taught my host sisters how to play UNO. Yesterday I asked one of them (Mamgonnée) how to say “jouer” (the French verb meaning “to play”) in Wolof. “Katt,” she said. What I didn’t know at the time was that she actually hadn’t heard my question correctly, and had responded with “cartes” instead of the Wolof word for “jouer” (“cartes” meaning “cards” in French.)

Fast forward to this morning, and I’m sitting in Wolof class. I tell our teacher, Sidy, that I learned the word for “jouer” in Wolof the day before: “Et jouer, c’est “katt” en Wolof, oui?” (And “jouer”, it’s “katt” in Wolof, yes?) He looks at me wide-eyed. “Où est-ce que tu as appris ce mot?” (“Where did you learn that word?”) I told him my host sister taught it to me, at which point he told me that “katt” actually means f*** in Wolof. At this point I realize why my host mom and one of her friends had looked at me so strangely when I asked my host sisters if they wanted to play UNO the night before. Yesterday, I went upstairs and, instead of asking my host sisters if they wanted to play cards, I said “UNO ngeen bëgg katt?” “Do you want to [insert expletive here] UNO?”

I won’t be living that one down any time soon.

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