Tag Archives: Wolof

Immigrant Children and Language


Language is an important aspect of our cultural identity. As immigrants, being able to keep our native languages alive by passing them on to our children is a source of great pride. It is also a way for some of us to demonstrate that despite our physical displacement, we remain culturally grounded in our communities of origin. However, sometimes our children are not ready or willing to speak our languages. In this case, there is no greater source of frustration for the immigrant parent. Because I work in the educational field, I often have these conversations with students whose parents are immigrants from different parts of the world, and many acknowledge that they refrain from speaking their parents’ native languages in public because they do not want to come across as different to their peers. This is the reason why some children may be comfortable speaking their parents’ native language at home, but in public, would respond to their parents in English only. I have seen this in the Senegalese immigrant communities I have interacted with. I have also observed that some parents, because they are eager to claim the American experience, or fear that their children will speak English with a foreign accent, choose to not teach their mother tongue to their children. I belong in the first group.

I enjoy speaking Wolof to my children, especially in public because I want them to have a sense of pride in their cultural identity.  I also think that it is very important to know more than one language. Before I had children, I imagined them to be trilingual like their parents, speaking Wolof, French and English. But it turns out that on a daily basis, we use only English and Wolof in our household. In an earlier post, I have shared how I don’t care much for the French language. Since relocating to the US, my usage of French is mostly limited to reading and the occasional conversation. Of course, there are some words I only say in French because they have been adopted into the Wolof language. For example we still use “ça va?” to greet each other.  But teaching French to my children was not an imminent goal. I however was determined that my children would be fluent in Wolof.  I spent a considerable amount of time researching multiple strategies that would make it possible for us to raise bilingual children. While there are several studies on how to teach children multiple languages, they all agree that the best way is that each parent would exclusively speak one language to the child. For example if parents wanted to teach their children Wolof, French, and English. One parent would speak only Wolof to the child while the other would speak only French. Then when parents are speaking between themselves, they would use English. I have seen this work out great for a family that I know.

In my case, I set out to speak only Wolof to my children but I did not realize how hard it would be to stick to it. I switched languages throughout my life going to school in French and English and then speaking Wolof at home. Doing the same with my children turned out to be a challenge. I spoke mostly Wolof to my first child and it worked out ok. She understands pretty much everything and with few trips to Senegal, manages to express herself in the language, most times. She also is curious about expressions she does not know and often takes the initiative to speak Wolof.  I was not as lucky with my second child. Although he often undertands what I mean, he doesn’t attempt to speak, unless he wants to make fun of me by repeating everything I say to him. This frustrates me because I know it is my fault that he is not as fluent as his sister.  I must have changed my approach and spoke predominantly English to him. It could also be that he went to daycare earlier than his sister and was therefore exposed to an English-only environment at a critical moment in language acquisition. In any case, something different happened in the ways languages were introduced to the two of them. Knowing this, I decided to speak only Wolof to my third child. Although I could tell that he understood most of what I said, I could not see any signs of him speaking the language, mainly because he is still very young to have an elaborate speech. But since he’s been going to daycare, I noticed that he was trying to utter English words in his babbling. I was getting alarmed that my linguistic efforts were vain.  So one can imagine how thrilled I was  few days ago, when he started telling people: “Kaay, kaay!” [Come here, come here!], gesturing with his fingers in the manner one would summon a person!

Some linguists argue that when children are taught multiple languages simultaneously, they tend to take longer speaking because they are trying to process and separate them before beginning to talk in either language. Maybe this is what is happening with my third child. Other experts suggest that there are three windows when the child’s mind is more open to learning a second, third, or even fourth language. The optimal window is at the time when the child is learning their first language, which is from birth to three years of age. The second window is between ages two and seven, and the last window is between ten and thirteen. This gives me hope that all is not lost for my second child, provided I break my habit of speaking English to him.

Please share your experiences and tips.


Senamericanly yours,


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.