Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Khalifa Sy

This is my friend Khalifa Sy, seen here with Donna Ko, another Real Live Bilingual!

Khalifa’s parents work for UNICEF, so he’s lived all over the world– in Senegal, South Africa, Switzerland, England and the United States, just to name a few. Somehow he had the joy of winding up in Mamaroneck, New York for his junior and senior year of high school, which is where I had the pleasure of befriending him.

This photo was taken at the exact Buffalo Wild Wings in “New Ro” where surely enough Khalifa’s photo is on the wall, having succeeded at eating their spiciest buffalo wings! If you ever eat Senegalese food you will understand that him completing this challenge is a toal no-brainer. It was actually the last time I saw Khalifa in the States…3 years later, he happened to be in Dakar visiting his grandma the day I arrived to spend a semester there, so we met up my very first night and Khalifa gave me a crash course in some survival Wolof. Khalifa is currently retiring from the Kenyan modeling world and planning a move to Canada (traitor!) to finish his studies in medicine.

What’s your name (accents, characters and all)?

My name’s Khalifa Sy. Khalifa means wisdom and success.

 Where were you born?

Dakar, Senegal

What languages do you speak? What’s your mother tongue?

My mother tongue is Wolof, and I speak English and French. I’m learning Japanese.

When/how did you learn to speak English? Was it a hard and painful process? 

I learned to speak English when I was about 7, I moved to South Africa not speaking a word of English. Took me about a year to speak fluently, it was pretty frustrating from what I remember, not being able to express myself and trying to understand what others were saying. It was pretty funny though. First day of school, I came home and asked my dad what “asshole” and “sperm” were, so he taught me how to use a dictionary.

Side story: I wanted to tell my teacher that I had a bike at home, instead I told her “my house is a bicycle”, naturally she laughed. I was so embarrassed I stuck with what i said and continued on to draw my house in the form of a bike, windows, doors and all. wish i still had that drawing!

 What language do you think in? Dream in?

Depending on what I’m thinking, who I’m talking to I’ll think in different languages, never put much thought into it though. I would say English because I’ve been in anglophone countries mostly. I dream in all languages, I have dreamt in languages I’m pretty sure i don’t know… the narrative is usually in English though.

 What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue? 

I really only speak Wolof when I’m home or in Senegal, so I feel home when I speak it. With that comes different foods, places I’ve been, people I know, and generally comfort. When I hear my mom calling my name in a very “Wolof” accent, I feel like I’m in trouble.

 What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in?

I’m most comfortable using English, it’s easier than French and you can say what you want without having to worry about whether the table is a girl or not.

 Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what?

Yea, there are a lot of expressions in Wolof that make no sense in English or French. “Sama yone nekou si” literally means “It’s not in my way”, but means “It’s none of my business”. I don’t know what to call them but there are words you add to the end of colours to tell how dark it is.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings?

Both my parents speak english, I speak to them in a mixture of English, French, or Wolof, whatever is more convenient. Wolof for more emotional subjects I guess, English is just practical and French when you want to be fancy! Same applies to my sisters.

 Do you feel different when you speak your mother tongue?

I feel like I still have a connection to where I’m from, I’m proud when I speak Wolof. I think I’m very lucky to be able to speak Wolof.

 Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?

I wouldn’t say I feel awkward speaking Wolof in front of friends, to most people it sounds like some weird Arabic dialect. In fact, I think my friends may be the ones that feel awkward… there’s a lot of “kh’s” like my name, always sets me up for a spit joke.

Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now?

There is definitely a difference in accents, I have a softer accent I think, and tend to pronounce foreign words with the right accent, so it’s weird when you hear switching in accents, from French, to English, back to Wolof.

 Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did u choose it?

“Ma ngi fi rek” this literally means ” I’m here” and it is the response to the equivalent of “How are you?” (Alice you know all this!). I think it’s interesting that a response to ” how are you” is to state where you are. It’s quite humble, almost as if to be alive and present is good enough.

A naughty, naughty word please.

Domou kharam! ( do i need to tell you what it means?)

 A sexy word please.

Either Wolof is very un-sexy or i don’t know how to hit on girls in Wolof, either way i can’t really think of any sexy words. The sexiest it gets is a marriage proposal: “Da mala beugu takk”, again you would know all about this! lol

 “Alice is awesome and I love her and miss her!”

“Alice mo ko yorr! te name na ko torop!” I’ll add this “Alice bou rafet, contane na si yaw” means “I’m really happy for you pretty Alice!

Namm naa laa Khalifa!! Ba ben en yon, j’espère

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals, Language, Multilingualism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Khalifa Sy

  1. Louise Egan says:

    Khalifa, you’re a linguistic khero! Great interview. Merci!

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