Monday, January 4, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Sierra Leone

In the last couple weeks of December, we looked at the languages of Eritrea and Libya, two countries located in Africa. Our first country profile for 2016 is dedicated to yet another African country, Sierra Leone, which is located in West Africa.

The Official Language

The official language of Sierra Leone is English, which was first introduced during the colonial era. Despite the fact that Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961, English has remained a key language in the country, especially in government and education. However, there are only around 500,000 native speakers of English in Sierra Leone. In fact, most Sierra Leoneans speak an indigenous language as their native language, and instead use English as a second language.

While English is the official language of Sierra Leone, Krio is undoubtedly the country's most important language, since it is spoken by about 90% of the population and is used throughout the country as a lingua franca by members of all ethnic groups. Also known as Sierra Leone Creole, Krio is an English-based creole that evolved from the various pidgins used by liberated African slaves who settled in the country in the early 1800s. Nearly 500,000 Sierra Leoneans speak Krio natively, while an additional 4 million use it as as second language.

Other Languages

Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, at night.
Sierra Leone is also home to over 20 other indigenous languages, almost all of which belong to the Niger-Congo language family. The five most spoken of these languages are Mende, Temne, Limba, Kuranko, and Kono.

Mende, the language of the Mende people, is the native language of almost 1.5 million Sierra Leoneans. It is primarily spoken in the southeastern areas of Sierra Leone, while Temne, which is natively spoken by about 1.2 million Sierra Leoneans, is most often used in the north. These two languages are followed in number of speakers by Limba, Kuranko, and Kono, which all boast between 200,000 and 300,000 native speakers.

There are four additional languages used in Sierra Leone with over 100,000 native speakers: Maninka, Loko, Pular, and Susu, which all belong to the Niger-Congo language family. There are also quite a few other languages such as Gola and Kissi that have several thousand speakers, though there is not much information on them.

Finally, Sierra Leone is home to two endangered languages that are nearly extinct: Bom and Krim. The use of Bom is thought to have declined since most speakers also speak the Mende language. Today there are only approximately 200 native speakers of Bom, while only a dozen or so speakers of the Krim language remain.