Friday, April 4, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Senegal

As today is the day Senegal gained political independence from France, we thought we'd take a look at some of the fascinating languages spoken in the former French colony. On this day in 1959, Senegal and the French Sudan became the Mali Federation, which was eventually given full independence from France on 20 June 1960. However, this is the day celebrated in Senegal so we will respect the Senegalese custom.


The flag of Senegal, which was adopted once the country
gained full independence from France.
As Senegal is a former French colony, you can expect that French is spoken here. However, French is far from the most commonly spoken language in Senegal. Though French is the one and only "official language" in Senegal and is used administratively, it is only understood by anywhere between 15% and 20% of Senegalese men and as little as 1% to 2% of all Senegalese women.

In fact, only 10% of the population of Senegal are true French native speakers, meaning that the remaining 90% of the country must speak some other language. This statement is entirely true, making Senegal a haven for linguistic diversity.

The most widely spoken language in Senegal is actually Wolof, which with nearly 4 million speakers in Senegal is spoken by nearly 40% of the population. The Wolof language is a Niger-Congo language and is regulated by CLAD, the Centre de linguistique appliquée de Dakar. The Wolof language holds regional language status in Senegal.

Soninke has around 2.1 million speakers in the world and aside from Senegal, it is spoken in Mali, the Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Ghana. While it is not the official language of Senegal, it is recognised as a regional language.

The Serer language also holds regional language status in Senegal. Much like Wolof, it is regulated by the CLAD where the standard form is known as Serer-Sine, or Serer Proper.

Another Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal is Pulaar, where it is locally known as Haalpulaar'en. Pulaar is also spoken in Mauritania, Gambia, and western Mali. Pulaar is one of the many names for the Fula language, depending on who you are speaking to. Fula, much like the other languages we have seen, holds regional language status in Senegal.

Mandinka has nearly 700,000 speakers in Senegal and is yet another Niger-Congo language. There a total 1.3 million speakers of Mandinka in the world and though Mandinka is principally a tonal language, in Senegal it is non-tonal and instead uses a pitch accent. The language is written using both Latin and Arabic scripts.

The Niger-Congo language of Jola-Fonyi is spoken by around 340,000 people in Senegal, principally in the Casamance region. There are around 410,000 total speakers of Jola-Fonyi in the world. Jola-Fonyi is one of the principal dialects of Jola which are not mutually intelligible. Jola has regional language status in Senegal.

After Jola-Fonyi, Mandjak is the next most spoken Niger-Congo language in Senegal with 310,000 speakers worldwide and 105,000 speakers in Senegal itself. Balanta-Ganja has around half a million speakers in the world and 82,800 speakers in Senegal. The Noon language family is mainly spoken in the Thiès region by nearly 33,000 people.

The Mankanya language has 29,200 speakers in Senegal. There are nearly 75,000 speakers of the language worldwide with the other speakers principally residing in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia.

Why are we so interested in how many people speak each of these languages? Because all of these languages have more speakers than the L1 and L2 speakers of French combined. Yet French is still the official language of Senegal. We're not saying that French should have its official status removed, but it seems to us that Senegal, while it recognises Wolof, Soninka, Serer, Fula, Maninka, and Jola, as regional languages, continues to conduct its affairs in a language spoken by a minority of the people dating back to European colonialism.