Bad News for the French Language in Africa

Dakar the capital of Senegal

“Salaam aleikoum.”

– “Maleikoum salaam.”

“Na ga def?” (How are you?)

– “Magni fi rekk.” (All’s well)

“Ah! Déega Olof?” (You understand Wolof?)

– “Waaw, tuti rekk.” (Yes, just a little)

Admittedly, my Wolof is rudimentary and does need improvement. But gone are the days when a flawlessly exercised greeting in high school French would do the trick for you in Dakar. Yes, Senegal was a French colony; in fact it was the oldest one. Yes, Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor was a giant of French literature. And yes, his successor Abdou Diouf heads the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. But this formal attachment to the French language is a far cry from your everyday street experience.

I am reminded of a conversation I had some years ago with a Dutch development worker. She confidently informed me that indigenous African languages were on the way out, being under constant assault from the big international languages. She may have had a point in the case of very small minority languages in pockets of Africa, but the idea that this continent will shortly only converse in foreign languages is ludicrous. Case in point: Senegal.

In the markets, in the taxis, in the shops and on the streets of Dakar, the language is Wolof. Go north and east and the language will be Halpulaar. Or take mbalax, Senegal’s signature popular music. All of it is sung in Wolof. Even international hits get the Wolof treatment, both in words and in music – and the result is usually an improvement on the original. French repertoire has virtually disappeared from Senegalese radio, which in most cases is a good thing; there is an awful lot of awful French pop music around. Mbalax rules, and if it’s not mbalax it’s hip-hop or R&B.

Someone who is the sum total of a lot of these elements is a guy called Akon. Senegalese by birth, lives in the USA, has made the same record with different words about twenty times and is an accomplished showman. Now picture a scene in a Senegalese town where a young crowd is singing along with all his tunes, word for word – in English! Happened last year, in Saint Louis, the oldest French settlement on the African coast.

Molière wept.

This French retreat is pretty universal. True, in places like Abidjan, Kinshasa, Yaoundé, it is still widely spoken, but it is taking the backseat. Abidjan speaks nouchy, a rich mix of French and a whole bunch of local languages all mashed up; Kinshasa converses in Lingala, Bamako prefers Bambara – and so on. Sure, the upper echelons still use French but it is probably safe to say that large numbers of Cameroonians, Congolese, Ivorians and even Senegalese have never spoken a European language. And if there is one foreign language that their children would like to speak, then it’s English, or, in the near future, Chinese. For which they will very likely have to go to a private learning institute that may be costly but delivers.

So the picture is not one of African languages dying like flies, as the Dutch development worker suggested. Nope. Africans are invariably multilingual. Just as with, for example, the Netherlands, the local language will simply co-exist with one or more foreign languages. The difference is that this time around Africans themselves are deciding which foreign language is most convenient to them. And French it ain’t.


By: Bram Posthumus