“They light up when I speak French”: How learning a foreign language helps to reach out and connect

20 March 2021

Bonjour! It’s French Language Day, a day to reflect on the official language in most of the countries Mercy Ships visits.

Lisa Benner from Castlegar, BC, during her time serving as French teacher in Guinea.

Lisa grew up in Castlegar, BC. After attending the University of Lethbridge and becoming a teacher, Lisa was ready to put her skills to work and help transform lives overseas. She spent 3 months traveling in Africa in Burkina Faso, and worked as an English teacher for Bridges of Hope International Network of Developing Agencies. She went on to work in Haiti with GAiN (Global AId Network), and realized her dream  of visiting all the French speaking countries in the world.

After retuning from traveling and taking a job as a Grade 3 French Immersion teacher in Okotoks, Alberta, it wasn’t long before Lisa felt called back to pursue her dreams in other parts of the world. After hearing about Mercy Ships, she started inquiring about the possibility of serving. After learning more, she decided she had to get involved. Her prayers were answered when a volunteer position for a French teacher opened onboard the Africa Mercy, and on June 1, 2018 Lisa was off to Guinea!

“I cannot wait for the people I am going to meet. It excites me to think that the ship will be filled with people from over 50 different countries. I’m excited about the opportunity to work in an international setting with students of who come from a variety of different backgrounds and I can’t wait to learn and grow from exposure to different cultures and lifestyles.”

During her time with Mercy Ships, Lisa worked in the onboard school, teaching around 50 kids ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 12.  After a year onboard, she returned home from her service in June 2019, filled with passion and hope for the lives she has supported throughout her service in Guinea.

Alexandra Klauke – also known as “Miss Alex” during her time serving as teacher in Guinea and Senegal – explains the value of learning someone’s language.

As a native French speaker, Alexandra also helped teaching French to elementary students onboard the Africa Mercy. The children, whose parents were serving as volunteers onboard the ship, came from countries all over the world. ‘For some of them it meant learning their second foreign language, because they were already learning English, the language of communication of the volunteers on the ship. It is always impressive to see how fast children pick things up. What they learned in class, they could use when visiting patients in the ward or with the local people in town,’ explained Alexandra.

Students in the Academy aren’t the only ones who benefit from learning to speak French. Volunteers onboard have also discovered the value of communicating with people in our host nations in their own language. “The best example is what happens when I start speaking French to a patient or a member of the day crew for the first time. The day crew consist of locals who work on the ship and have all kinds of jobs like translating, cooking, cleaning, and driving.  When I say “Bonjour, ça va?” and they find out I speak French, they immediately light up and start talking. Understanding each other without the need of a translator definitely helps with communication, and connections are made more easily. I think that is a good reason to learn at least a few words.’

Mercy Ships tries to facilitate volunteers connecting with people in their own languages. Therefore, volunteers can often sign up for optional tutoring, weekly classes, and conversational French groups onboard. And in countries like Senegal, where French is not the lingua franca, there is the opportunity to learn native languages like Wolof.

It may be clear that, as a visitor, learning a language is necessary. But there is also a personal gain in doing so: ‘If you go to the market or if you are in a taxi, it is pretty convenient to speak the language, even if it is just a bit. It makes you feel more comfortable when travelling. Also,’ stated Alexandra, a true teacher, ‘it is good for your brain to learn a second or third language — learning keeps it flexible.’

As a bilingual organization, Mercy Ships Canada is proud to celebrate French Language Day!

Parlez-vous français?  Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to get Mercy Ships updates en français!