The Precarious Status of French in Senegal

The shift away from French in West-African education is, to say the least, a rather under-reported topic. The reason why this trend tends to escape the notice of observers is the slow pace at which it is happening, only Rwanda having enough determination to completely scrap French from primary education. In the introduction to her "Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean", Julie Huntington gives an aperçu of the situation of French in Senegal.
Although French is the official language of Senegal, many Senegalese citizens do not speak French, particularly in rural locations like Keur Momar Sarr. In rural areas, people tend to speak their maternal languages at home with their families. Some of these languages, including Mandingué, Bambara, and Balanta, are minority languages that are not represented by the Senegalese government as national languages. For those minority language speakers who do business outside of their villages, a vehicular language is often utilized for the purposes of communication and commerce.
Generally speaking, Wolof is the preferred vehicular language in northern Senegal (the part of Senegal north of the Gambia), and Dioula is the preferred vehicular language in southern Senegal (the part of Senegal south of the Gambia), although other languages like Serer, Pular, Malinké, and Soninké are preferred in specific subregions. Although French remains the official language of secondary and University education, in recent years, the Senegalese government has encouraged a shift away from French to Senegalese languages in elementary education, particularly in rural areas where residents are less likely to speak French. (...) 7. Whereas 80 percent of Senegalese citizens speak Wolof as a maternal or foreign language, about 15 to 20 percent of Senegalese speak French. Although this information is published in book form (see Leclerc 1992), the most up-to-date information is available on Leclerc’s Web site, Aménagement linguistique dans le monde, at http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl.

The following excerpt (pp. 69-70) from the same book describe the absurdity of the language situation in Senegal. French is an obstacle to the development of the country as most of its inhabitants don't understand it at all. It will not be possible to alphabetize West-Africa as long as primary education remains in French. La Francophonie is chiefly about pressuring third-world governments into ramming the French language down their populace's collective throat even at the cost of development.
Indeed, local language instruction is deemed by many to be a prerequisite to alphabetization and development in Africa. It is, therefore, a promising sign to see primary instruction gradually shifting away from French in countries such as Senegal.


Edward J. Cunningham said...

Good to see you back, UnFrench!

Edward J. Cunningham said...

One quick question which I hope you (or somebody else) can explain to me. Obviously, English is more useful right now as an international lingua franca than French. (I'm speaking of the entire world, not Senegal's immediate neighbors.) But as far as "alphabetizing" West Africa, I don't see how French is less useful than English since both languages use (with only a few minor differences) the same Roman alphabet. It's not like Sengalese are learning Chinese kanzi to write. Is it that the sounds regularly used in French are so dissimilar to those in West African native languages that learning French makes it more difficult for Sengalese to learn how to write?

Anonymous said...

Glad you are back.

You say they are shifting from French? To English?

And I also wonder about the alphabetization issue too?

Unfrench Frenchman said...

I am not saying that English is more useful than French when it comes to alphabetizing the Africans. Many think that most African children fail to learn how to write because they don't understand the teacher or the schoolbooks when they go to school because they only speak their mother tongue, which is neither French nor English. This is why many recommend that primary school instruction be conducted in a local language, and English or French be introduced when children already know how to write. As it is, children end up without any knowledge of the medium of instruction (French or English) and unable to even write their native language. In short, western-language education seems to fail most Africans.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

In Senegal, a shift from French to a local language as a primary medium of instruction is encouraged by the government in elementary education. It is not a question of French vs. English here. French is competing against both English and the local languages in West-Africa, and the French government has been fighting for decades to prevent other languages than French from taking over in the media, administration and schools. The power elite in West-African has often been happy with the current status of French because it gives them an advantage over the masses of their subjects who don't speak or write French.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point about the power elite. The tests to work for the British civil service used to be in Latin. Latin was taught in the private schools where the elites were, but not in the public schools. The elies always feather their own nests.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that French is marginal in some "Francophone" African countries but here is one of a number of possible and even probable counter-arguments:

Just watch, Ivory Coast is now a true French-speaking country with its own variety of French, that won't change. Just listen to how expat Ivoirians speak to each other in French on http://www.radioci.com/ . Since Ivory Coast is a culturally popular country in Africa, other Africans from "Francophone Africa" are going to continue wanting to learn and speak French because the Ivoirians, and Ivoirian cultural productions, do and because French allows them access, culturally and economically, to Ivory Coast. This alone will maintain the French language's implantation in West Africa.

Ivoirian French is seen by Africans in "Francophone countries" as being somewhat of an African Language unto itself and so it interests them in a way that European French wouldn't. Ivoirian French has developed words and idioms that allow Africans to express their feelings a bit like they would in their various maternal languages.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

I understand where you're coming from, but the French that is in use in Dakar, Abidjan or Yaoundé is a creole and therefore it should not be called French at all, even if many of the speakers of these creoles are able to switch to real French when talking to a non-African. I am not saying this to disparage anybody, I am just stating the truth. As these creoles gain in importance and take root they will drift away from French. They may end up becoming the majority language in a number of these countries, but they will not be closer to French than is Spanish or Italian.

For this reason, Africa will not give the French language a chance at resurgence. For Francophonie, the game is over, as many French politicians of the post-Chirac era have sensed.

Anonymous said...

Cher Unfrench Frenchman,
How long have you spent in Africa? I disagree with your linguistic analysis of what you call French creoles and how their evolution will or will not allow an African born resurgence of French. First off, if the people are speaking French based creoles or African French, then governments will continue to use French as the official language of the countries and news and text will continue to be in French, so there will still be important reasons to speak French. Even in the case that you are right about the French "creoles" I think the existence of those creoles will in fact enrich the French language with new phrases an idioms. You are too set on being anti-French to be objective about this my friend.
Watch the Ivorian TV show "ma famille" or the musical group "Magic System" to get an idea of the vitality of French these days...

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Just what makes you so sure that the West-African governments will always maintain French in its official language status? I am convinced that it is only a matter of time until they replace it with creole.

Oh, and it is obvious by your response that you are unable to tell your native African creole from real French. For if you were, you would not consider Magic Premiere a French-speaking band. I hate to break it to you, but no Frenchman or Canadian can understand more than a few words of their songs. Heck, they wouldn't even recognize that those guys are actually trying to sing in French.

Sorry, but if you want to enrich the French language, you should begin by speaking French.

Anonymous said...

What you describe in Africa was also the situation in England after the Norman Conquest. For several centuries after the Normans conquered England French was the language of law and administration even though the common folk spoke English, thus requiring that lawyers learn a foreign language in order to practice their trade on behalf of their clients.

Several centuries had to go by before English was accepted as the language of the state again, and even then French words are common in English.

Incidentally, one of the reasons England was able to move ahead of its contemporaries is that in later centuries Albion kept its state records in the vernacular language of the people instead of putting everything in Latin or Norman French.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that very interesting comment. That may happen in places like Senegal but I can't see it happening in other places like Ivory Coast.

As for Unfrench's ideas that creole will be the state language, to my knowledge the only place in Africa that has a creole well developed enough for that is Ivory Coast.

In addition, funny thing, at a Senegalese Independence Day Party here in my non-French-speaking country, the main language that folks spoke was French.

In addition don't underestimate the effect of the large number of Africans from Francophone African countries that live in France. That has a Frenchafying effect as well. Francophone Africans in America and Africa for example often have relatives in France who do not speak English very well. Those in America then want to keep up their French to be able to communicate with Africans in France and the children of those Africans that speak better French than their family's African language.

I think we are all right here, I think that some of what each of us is saying will come true.


Jack said...

You Ivorians from Abidjan think you talk to each other in French, but really you don't. Or are such sentences as, "La go a soutra mon pia" supposed to be French? You people don't have anything like the same slang as do the French and no Frenchman understands Ivorian slang. This shows that your so-called "French" is going its own African way. Most Ivorians don't speak French, which creates a situation where having French as a sole official language becomes a hindrance to economic and cultural development because it excludes too many people from meaningful interaction with the State.

James said...

Three points:

1. Jack, I think you're underestimating the unifying effects of having a single national language. The cases of Canada, Belgium, South Tyrol and many others show that having multiple official languages tends to lead to discord and separatism. All Ivoiriens learn French in school. If they have gone to school, they should be able to communicate together, something they could not do if each ethnic group's language was official.

2. As for the case of Senegal, yes, Wolof is the most common language there. But where else is it spoken? Nowhere. Learning French opens up the horizons of Senegalese to many other places in the world. Going to Wolof would most likely lead to cultural isolation. Haiti is having this same debate about educating children in Creole, and it too is misguided in my opinion. Learning to read and write in Creole serves Haitians little purpose outside their home country.

3. To the author of this blog: it's true that many in Côte d'Ivoire speak a creole, but there are also many genuine francophones there as well (some of whom speak it as their native language). The linguistic situation there is not as black and white as you make it out to be.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

James, if you had read my blog entries you would know that the fact that Africans are not schooled in their native languages leads to sky-high illiteracy rates, be it in Senegal, Ivory Coast and other such countries. Does a high illiteracy rate open you up to other cultures and places? I don't think so.
And then another question, does the fact that the Czech children are educated in Czech isolate them culturally or would it be convenient to start educating them in French too? I am certain that you will agree that switching to French would have disastrous consequences.

The example of Haiti is preposterous. One could use the same argument about French. French is of little use to the French outside of France since most Europeans outside of France don't speak French and most French don't go to Africa when vacationing. Oddly enough, they rather vacation in Spain, where French is not in use. Well, maybe French isolates the French within Europe and French kids should be educated in English.

As to the genuine French speakers in Ivory Coast, they all belong to the elite and use their knowledge of French to keep the rest away from political and economical power. This a phenomenon that is reproduced in nearly every black African country.