Monday, August 29, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of the Gambia

This month we've explored the languages of a diverse group of countries: Lesotho, Macedonia, Botswana, and Latvia. Today we're going to conclude this month's posts with a look at the languages spoken in the Gambia, the smallest country on mainland Africa.

The Official Language

As with many African countries, the sole official language of the Gambia is English, which was introduced during the colonial period. The Gambia gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, but English has remained a key language.

However, it is only used as a native language by about 1,000 Gambians, while another 40,000 speak it as a second language. Given that the country's population is over 1.8 million people, English is clearly overshadowed by the Gambia's indigenous languages.

Other Languages

One interesting fact about the Gambia's indigenous languages is that they all belong to the Niger-Congo language family. The country's most spoken language is Mandinka, which is used by about 480,000 Gambians. It is a tonal language, and is written using both Latin and Arabic-based writing systems.

The Gambia River
The Gambia's number two language is Pulaar, which is spoken by about 260,000 people, followed by Wolof, which is used by another 220,000. Pulaar is one of the Fula languages used throughout Western and Central Africa, while Wolof is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, which surrounds most of the Gambia.

Another prominent language is Serahule, also known as Soninke. It belongs to the group of Niger-Congo languages known as Mande languages, and is the native language of approximately 166,000 Gambians. There are also about 56,000 native speakers of Jola-Fonyi, which is also used in Senegal, and 30,000 native speakers of Serer, the language of the Serer ethnic group.

The Ethnologue lists two more languages that are spoken in the Gambia, both of which happen to have more native speakers than English, the official language. There are about 20,000 native speakers of the Mandjak language, and 6,000 native speakers of Karon. Both Mandjak and Karon belong to a group known as the Bak languages.

Finally, it's worth noting that French and Arabic are widely used throughout the Gambia as second languages. In fact, in 2014 the country's president suggested that the official language should be switched to Arabic, as English is a colonial relic. However, no changes have been made official yet.