Blending Language and Drawing the Line

Prior to my arrival in Switzerland, my only vested experiences in the Francophone world had taken place in Dakar, Senegal, where the linguistic norm of urban centers entails “code-switching” between French and Wolof, even over the course of one sentence. Upon arrival to Switzerland, I found it almost humorous that French spoken conversationally could be so homogenous, without interspersion of words from other languages, despite the various cantons of Switzerland which differ in language. Italian, German, and French do not strongly intermingle, aside from being utilized by travelers and migrants who move amongst Switzerland’s various cantons. Arriving by train to a German-speaking canton of Switzerland may just as well be a complete identity transformation of the Swiss characterization. Rather than adopting the fluid intermingling of languages experienced in Senegal, languages and linguistic identities remain relatively distinct.

An annual contest amongst Senegalese university students in Dakar comes to mind when I think of this linguistic difference between Senegalese French and Swiss French: students are challenged to speak on a specific subject for five minutes in exclusively Wolof. If a student uses even a single word in French (or a word that has been adapted from French stylistically into Wolof), they are disqualified. Year after year, the task proves nearly impossible for students. The historical and cultural intermingling of the languages, the imprint of colonial imposition and resulting forced adaptation reverberates into the deepest structures of the Wolof language. To consider this occurring between, for example, French and Italian, as a persistent social phenomenon in Switzerland, would be inconceivable. This stands as yet another reminder of the historical and cultural entrenchments of language, and my need to be mindful of them as I discover differences in how French is used across geographic landscapes.

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