Thinking about language

While French is the official language of Senegal, there are lots of other languages spoken throughout the country. In Dakar, most people speak Wolof at home and in the streets and through my study abroad program I have been learning Wolof, although it is very different from anything I have ever spoken before. For the first few weeks, I could barely understand anything past basic greetings. Now, roughly four months later, I can pick out bits and pieces of conversations, but I am still in the very beginning stages of speaking Wolof. At the same time I have been taking French classes, a language I have studied for several years, but still struggle to keep up in conversations when people speak quickly or pronounce things slightly differently than I am used to.

While I can communicate more easily in French, I usually try to begin conversations in Wolof, going through traditional greetings. As the conversation progresses, I end up switching to French, although I try to add any Wolof words I know. I have found that people generally appreciate when you at least try to speak Wolof, demonstrating a basic respect for the local language rather than the language imposed on the country by the French colonizers. There does seem to be a strong association between the French language and the sad history of colonization of Senegal and other French West African countries. Schools in Senegal follow the French system and all classes are taught in French. While visiting a more rural region of the country, I found that you could guess at someone’s level of education based on how well they spoke French. This demonstrates how problematic the educational system is, as it is difficult to begin schooling while also learning a new language, often not spoken in the home. It also challenges students who may struggle to succeed educationally in a foreign language.

While Wolof is considered the most spoken language in Senegal, there are many other languages spoken by various ethnic groups. For example, in the Matam region of Senegal, near the border of Mauritania, the majority of people speak Pulaar and many do not speak French or Wolof at all. South of Dakar, in the Fatick region, many people speak Serer and below the Gambia, in Casamance, Diola is predominately spoken. People also speak Mandinka, Soninke, Balanta-Ganja, Mandjak, Noon, Mankanya and Hassaniya Arabic throughout Senegal. Many people speak multiple languages, learning them as they grow up around different ethnic groups and do not think twice about switching between three or four languages depending on who they are talking to.

I have really enjoyed trying to learn the local languages and communicate with the people I meet in their own language rather than French. Lately I have found I am understanding more and more Wolof and am met with friendly smiles when I speak the language, no matter how limited my vocabulary is. If I return to Senegal, I hope to continue learning Wolof, meeting people where they are, rather than communicating solely in French, a language which carries the history of French colonization in Senegal.