Mercy Ships are filled with volunteers from around the world, representing different cultures and languages from their home countries. Though it is a requirement to speak English onboard for safety reasons, many of our volunteers find ways to share their native language in different capacities. For volunteer and native French speaker Alexandra – also known as “Miss Alex” during her time serving as a teacher in Guinea and Senegal – language is a way to connect with our patients as well. Alexandra helped teach 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,” Alexandra said. “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 weren’t the only ones who benefited 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,” Alexandra shared. “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. In countries like Senegal, where French is not the lingua franca, there is also 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,” Alexandra said. “It makes you feel more comfortable when traveling. Also, it is good for your brain to learn a second or third language — learning keeps it flexible.”
Learn more about how to join or support here: Mercy Ships The Mercy Ships Academy is a fully accredited international school for children from kindergarten through high school. We believe that it is essential for students to communicate with the people we serve in West and Central Africa. To this end, the Academy offers a school-wide French Language Program that gives all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 the opportunity to learn French as a second language and develop a deeper understanding of French and francophone culture. Our emphasis on learning French is beautifully explained by the British author John le Carré who said,
“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.”
A global charity operating hospital ships in developing nations since 1978, we bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor by serving all people without regard for race, gender, or religion. Long-term and short-term volunteer opportunities typically fill service or specialized medical or technical positions.
At any given time during its nearly 40-year history, Mercy Ships has had between 1 and 3 ships in service. Currently, the Africa Mercy is the only Mercy Ship in service, but it represents greater capacity than all prior hospital ships combined. Since the deployment of the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships has been committed to adding another ship to the fleet.
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