French is the commonly spoken language in many of the Sub-Saharian nations Mercy Ships serves, and many of our patients also speak other languages. Our translators mainly use French to explain to our patients all that is happening around them and to gain their consent for treatment every step of the way in their journey to healing.
Alexandra Klauke – also known as “Miss Alex” – volunteered in Guinea and Senegal as the French teacher in our onboard school, and she explains the value of learning someone’s language.
As a native French speaker, Alex taught the language to the primary school students onboard the Africa Mercy. The children, whose parents serve as volunteers onboard the ship, come from countries all over the world. She explains, ‘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.’
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 so volunteers often sign up for optional tutoring, weekly classes, and conversational French groups onboard. And in countries like Senegal, where French is not the commonly spoken language, 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.’
Find out more about volunteer teaching roles onboard
The Mercy Ships Academy is the crew children’s onboard school, from preschool to the end of high school. The school’s emphasis on French learning is beautifully explained by the words of British author John le Carré, who writes: The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.