Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction


I was inspired to write about this thanks to a friend’s Facebook status about how Senegalese wrestlers were interviewed in French ― “when many of them cannot communicate well in Wolof, let alone in French.” Although the wrestling match took place in Bercy, France, the journalists who interviewed the wrestlers should have addressed them in Wolof and use interpreters to translate for the French. As my friend noted, when Americans go to France, they are provided interpreters and not forced to speak the host language, even if they could manage a basic conversation in it. As a matter of fact, Juan Carlos, the wrestler from Spain who adopted the Senegalese sport and was among the participants at Bercy, was interviewed in Spanish.  Language is one of the major carriers of culture. Imagine if the wrestlers were asked to perform their bakk, these intricate panegyric chants that often highlight a wrestler’s trajectory while taunting possible opponents, in French! The meaning of such performance would have become senseless, if not comical.

The second reason for this post is Bousso Dramé’s letter to the French Consulate in Dakar, which went viral on social media in the past couple of days. Ms. Dramé won the National Grand  Prix d’Orthographe, a prestigious prize that proved her command of the French language. As the winner, she was supposed to travel to France for an all-expense-paid training in film studies. But when Miss Dramé went to the French Consulate in Dakar to apply for a visa, she was repeatedly disrespected by the staff, as it is often the case for Senegalese visa seekers. To show her outrage Miss Dramé wrote a letter to the French Consulate renouncing the visa as well as the prize. As she states in her letter, “It is time for Africans to respect themselves and demand to be respected by others.” I could not agree more but I feel that respect for oneself starts from being proud of one’s culture and Senegal is too dependent on the French language. The Senegalese educational system is a copycat of the French model and French continues to be the language of instruction. This practice only devalues Senegal’s indigenous languages and shows a severe complex of inferiority. I am happy that the Senegalese have great command of French and are able to win prestigious prizes for it. I however look forward to the day when similar competitions are held for Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, Sereer, and the many other ethnic languages that comprise Senegal’s rich linguistic heritage. Respect for oneself should start with ditching French as the primary language of instruction in schools and adopting Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca― which over 70% of Senegalese speak or understand.  I am not against teaching French in Senegalese schools. I just think it should be a second language like English, German, and other European languages.

French has been imposed on the Senegalese for too long and learning it is a traumatic experience for many.I believe my attitude toward French is because I feel the language was imposed on me as well. Although I initially came to the US as a French instructor, my usage of French has been limited to reading and the occasional conversation. One might think that I ditched my “French roots” in favor of American ones, but that is not the case. I simply do not care much about French. I don’t remember loving French or feeling the need to speak it. Those of you who are old enough to remember le symbole know how traumatic learning French was in Senegal.  To those who did not go through it, le symbole was literally a “necklace of shame” made with some disgusting materials.  In my elementary school, it was a huge cow bone attached to some rags.  Any pupil in 4th grade and beyond who was heard speaking Wolof or any other indigenous language, would have to wear the necklace of shame as a symbol of their faux pas and unwillingness to speak the language of De Gaulle. I never wore that horrible necklace. Not because I was fluent in French as a 4th grader, but because I was good at cheating my peers. I was one of the best students and my classmates probably believed that since I was a good student, my French must have been good too. On occasions I was caught speaking Wolof, I would defiantly deny it and invent a French word. But despite the fact that I never wore the necklace, I was terrified of it. I knew that if word got to my parents that I was caught not speaking French, I would get in trouble. Yes, parents also participated in this “Frenchization” of their children. Ironically, many parents, especially those who did not understand French, found it disrespectful if their child spoke to them in French. So in a sense children were told to switch back and forth from their native language to French depending on the place, as if language and culture are accessories one can wear and take off whenever needed. I know it is possible to navigate languages and cultures but when the switch is forced on the person, it becomes problematic.

Fifty three years after independence, I still cannot comprehend why major effort is not being made to use Wolof. I understand that the Senegalese have appropriated French and made it their own. Actually, I believe that the French language is alive and richer because of the many former colonies that continue to use it as “official” language. This does not change the fact that French is a foreign language for most Senegalese because they do not speak it at home. I believe this is the major reason why the Senegalese educational system continues to be in crisis. Children have to spend a long time trying to master the language before engaging is learning other subjects. This approach makes it difficult for them to learn through critical thinking. Imagine how much better and faster children would learn if they were taught in the language they think in. Primary learning engages both the conscious and the unconscious, and therefore can be best accomplished if done in the language one thinks in. It is counter-productive to force children to learn and think in a language different than their native tongue, and expect them to achieve proficiency early on in order to learn math, sciences, and other subjects.

Although Senegal has come a long way in reclaiming some of its linguistic heritage thanks to the proliferation of private radios, which made it possible for the news and talk shows to be delivered in indigenous languages, the bulk of the effort should be directed at making Wolof the major language of instruction. Some would argue that Wolof is not the only indigenous language, and that adopting it as the primary language in schools might undermine other ethnic languages. I would say that if people have not objected to French being the language of instruction, they should be fine with using Wolof.

I look forward to your comments.

14 thoughts on “Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction”

  1. I applaud you sister Marame Gueye for wading in these muddy waters of Languague and Education. Being a Linguistics major, I felt right at home with the topic and I laud your efforts to bring this issue to our attention. I will however say that the solution you bring to the forefront although apparently a no brainer remains in fact very complex. First and foremost, I do not care much for French either but you have to admit that Senegal is far from being a homogeneous country. You may think that adopting Wolof as the first language of instruction would fix it all but it would actually raise more problems. I would want to see people’s reactions in Fouta or Casamance when they are told that their kids would be taught in Wolof instead of Diola or Pulaar etc…. My own grandmother lived all her life among Wolofs and still refused to speak it. I myself only started speaking the language when I finally left to continue my schooling in Fatick. Secondly, if it was decided that every region should teach their kids in the dominant language of the area, this would be almost unfeasible in the foreseeable future because of the economics and logistical means it entails (re-training teaching for one….) To close, I would refer you to the issue of the “Oakland school board against the people of Oakland” in the 90’s when they tried to introduce “Ebonics” as an alternative to English for inner city kids (a.k.a Blacks).

    1. Malick, thank you for reading! I agree that using Wolof as the language of instruction in Senegal is easier said than done and does in fact constitute in itself an impossibility in the near future. I do however think that Wolof and the other indigenous languages should be required in schools so that little by little, teachers can move to using those languages. I understand that training would be expensive but if teachers were recruited locally, trained, and sent back to their original communities, this shift would be feasible in the future. Research has shown that children who are taught in languages other than their native ones, take longer to learn and have more difficulties with subjects.

  2. No Marame it is you who should be thanked for this. I definitely think we should incorporate our own languages sooner rather than later. The real problem would be to find a formula accepted by the people. From a purely sociolinguistics point of view, something needs to be done about the ‘creolization’ of our languages.You did mention the inability of many to even carry a simple conversation in our native languages without code-switching which is a real pity. I wonder how long before the languages as we know them now cease to exist and give way to something utterly different. That being said, it is never going to be easy. As a case in point, just read the news on seneweb a couple of days ago about the former mayor of Sedhiou Balla Moussa Daffe who along with a few friends of his flew into Dakar from Ziguinchor. According to the reports, they were asked to sign in at the Customs and they refused to comply saying that the South is being isolated from the rest of the country with measures like that. I will shut up now and let others chime in. Thanks again sister! You are nothing short of brilliant!!!!

  3. If I may add also, although we are mainly talking about Senegal here, I cannot help but think of the case of Rwanda who we all know dropped French in favor of English after the civil war. I cannot help but wonder if they didn’t completely miss the boat by not promoting their language the Kinyirwanda rather than another foreign one. Just something to ponder about!

  4. Marame,
    This is quite thought-provoking. You are right that the hegemony of the French language in Senegal is troubling. As you point out, many studies have confirmed that students perform better when instruction is carried out in their native languages. But as Malik argues, adopting Wolof as the language of instruction (an also the official language) would raise more problems. The examples that he provides are right on the mark. What I foresee, with the implementation of Wolof, is the risk of substituting one hegemony for another. The histories and relationships between Wolof and the other languages of Senegal have not always been harmonious. I have often pondered the origins and meanings of the term “lakkakat,” for what it implies about Wolof as a national norm and ideal. I am speaking here as somebody who is equally at home in Diola and Wolof. The ideal solution would be for children to be taught in their respective native languages. French would then be gradually incorporated, maybe starting in middle school.
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and Malik’s contribution.

  5. Malick and Ayo, thank you for your contributions. I completely forgot about the Rwandan case. Yes, I think they missed the chance to implement Kinyirwanda! You would think they would take the chance, or maybe they wanted to be globally present and English is the language of the “prosperous” world. I have often thought about whether Senegal would one day make that switch to English. They love English and more and more people are conversant in it now.
    Ayo, I agree that the relationships between Wolof and the other languages are in fact troubled, with Wolof arrogantly dismissing the others. It is a pity that Senegal cannot figure this out and come up with a solution. Children are paying dearly for it and as Malick said, it will kill our languages. South Africa had the same issue recently when, I think it was the University of KwaZula Natal required that all in-coming students must have some level of proficiency in isiZulu. Critics feared this was a move toward the “Zulufication” of South Africa. I do not understand how people would prefer a foreign/European language over one of the native ones, even if that means confirming the hegemony of the latter. I would prefer to learn in Pulaar than in French, honestly!

  6. Very enriching to read your post Marame! As a French person and passionated about Africa, I admire the political-linguistic-cultural debate that you have started. I live in Australia and I can definitely transfer your words and arguments in defence of preserving Aboriginal languages at school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders children. The same question remains as in Senegal, they face such a diversity of tribal languages… How can one language be taught in an Indigenous school and be accepted by other Aboriginal communities?
    Keep writing please. I’m glad to discover a smart blog debating on real issues!

  7. Dear Marame,
    I could not agree more with what you have said. Ayo’s argument about possible problems regarding the choice of Wolof over other languages is equally important. Thank you for your post and your blog, I commend you on your insightful posts and I look forward to reading more.
    My concern is about the politics behind the hegemony of French language in Senegal. As we all know, it is more than a matter of language of education; it is about the massive financial contribution of France to almost every cultural production in the country and their omnipresence in the cultural realm. If the money comes from France, we all know that it comes with conditions. Why is a member of the French cooperation working at the Senegalese ministry of culture ? How can we explain the bizarre nature of African cinema regarding the language in which most films are made? Cultural agents might agree with you, but their hands are tied. Since Senghor, the budget allocated to culture has decreased to serve other purposes leaving a void that was easily filled, in various ways, by the French. Even under Senghor, education in Wolof was not an option because of political relations with France. It is part of the reason why the influence of people like Cheikh Anta Diop was never really allowed to spread.
    In a nutshell, I believe that many of us will agree with you and we can discuss ways to make education in African languages happen in Senegal, but none of this will be possible with the way money, so generously offered by the French keeps tampering with the way culture is produced in Senegal today. What can scholars do about it? I know that you were discussing education in French vs education in Wolof but I believe that this is all related.

  8. Faat Kine, thank you so much for visiting my blog and for your very insightful contribution. I am honored that you find my writing important. I agree that France’s hegemonic stature plays a detrimental role but I find that this power is wanning as Senegal is more and more leaning toward America. One can see with in how much they now try to speak and understand English. Senegalese popular culture and immigration also show us that the country has its eyes turned toward America. I am not saying that this is a good thing but it does show that France is no longer the power player it used to be. The Chinese are also making huge strides in the country, and Africa in general. All this means that Senegal is severing its ties with French. But does it lead to a doing away with French? I think not. The ethnic barriers Ayo and Malick raised are very challenging and will continue to exist. There needs to be a careful examination of the pros and cons of adopting Wolof as the primary language of instruction. Thanks again for your comment. Please keep reading and subscribe if you haven’t already.

  9. Sometimes I am under the impression that using foreign words in a conversation gives some kind of an edge. Otherwise, how can we explain the recurrence of Arabic formulas, French quotes, and/or English words in our daily conversations? I agree that all languages borrow words and/or phrases from other languages they have been in contact with, but this should not be a reason to let our native vocabulary fall into oblivion. Besides, the prevalence of foreign words over native terms contributes to the decay of our indigenous languages as we tend to not give the attention they deserve. E.g: Most people will say “Karaw” to refer to “Hair” whereas the actual word is “Kawar”. “Karaw” is to be used when you refer to the ingredient for millet-based porridges such as “laax” or “fonde”. People can’t tell them apart because they are not taught the basic rules of Wolof grammar. That, to me, is a challenge we have to take up for the sake of the future generations. Cheikh Anta Diop used to say: kenn mënul tàqamtiku lu neex ci làmmiñu keneen.

  10. Thanks Syleymaan.
    Do you think that the kind of edge that people are seeking are the same for every foreign language used in Wolof conversations? For example, when people add Arab words, they are often trying to show that they are religious erudites, when it comes to using French or English, it is often an intention to show how intellegent and “sophisticated” they are. I do not see the same intention when they use other local languages such as using Pulaar or Sereer words. What do you think?

  11. Marame, this is a very interesting topic . I did not see read the blog until now, but I believe it is a prevalent issue that needs to be debated. The point I would like to make is in relation to the “inferiority complex” you mentioned in this blog entry. It is very true that many Senegalese please use French to show ” sophistication” “assimilation”, as people say.
    French is also used a means to show the socio-economic divide within Senegal to the point that some people forbid their children from speaking wolof or any other indigenous language they view as the languages of the “poor” and the “uneducated”. I have witnessed it myself.

    On a different note, in response to your suggestion of using Wolof as an official language, I believe ,as many other comments mentioned that it would be very challenging. Not only will it encounter much opposition from other ethnic groups, but also from those who see French as a language of prestige and that of the elite ( I mean those who count themselves as in those ranks).
    By the way, Marame, I really applaud your insightfulness and creativity in coming up with this great topics.

    1. You are welcome Ndeye. I am you find the blog insightful. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. You are right that French is seen as the language of prestige. I also find that English is becoming like that in Senegal when immigrants come gave and decide that they would show off their linguistic alienation by speaking English at every opportunity.

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