Lessons from a Sénégalese Polygot

In Language by Abeera Shahid

When meeting individuals in Sénégal, you learn that speaking multiple tongues is the norm, not the exception. French is the colonial language taught in schools and businesses, while Wolof is spoken in informal contexts, and a myriad of other languages may be found in different homes. Why is it that in some places, multilingualism is the norm? 

For those who want to become polyglots, today we are looking for lessons in Sénégal with Omar Cisse. He is a bilingual researcher and an independent consultant, translator and interpreter, and Director of Programs at the Youth Empowerment School in Saint-Louis Sénégal. Omar speaks 7 languages, a mix of local and European ones. His Youth Empowerment School teaches English to youth and adults who are looking to develop their careers. Omar embraced the power of languages that existed around him and tells us how languages can bridge cultural and ethnic differences, transforming communities for the better.

Which languages do you speak and how did you learn them?

I speak French and English, some Arabic, Wolof, Mandinka, Jola, and Bambara. My grandfather was Wolof and a cattle-trader. He travelled throughout the country, coming from Diourbel to settle in the Casamance. I was born in Ziguinchor, Casamance, a multicultural area in Sénégal where many ethnic groups reside. My father is Wolof and my mother is Manding, which is why I speak those two languages. I learned Jola because many of my friends growing up were from this ethnic group. Bambara has a certain link with Mandinka as its part of the same language family, that is why it is easy for me to understand. When Bambara is spoken, a Manding can understand and vice versa. I learned French and English from primary school to university. I also took some Arabic courses at school. At home, we mostly speak Wolof but my mother prefers to speak in Manding.

How were the different local languages used when you were young?

Although traditional languages were not taught at school, the teachers used them at times to provide explanations. For the most part, French and English were used, and we were encouraged to speak them outside of class at school too. These days, new policies are trying to implement the national languages in school but unfortunately, I was not a part of that generation. When I was a kid, we spoke Wolof outside of classes or some kids spoke other languages depending on their ethnicity.

What are some lessons you’ve learned while using these languages?

I find languages are more similar than they are different. Some words in Manding even look like English ones. For example, “hanifing” in Mandinka means nothing, which is similar to the word anything in English. What is interesting is that Manding people tell me that I speak the language like an English person because of my accent. This is something only a native speaker can notice. They tell me, Omar, you forgot how to speak Manding because I make small mistakes. Maybe, this happens because I speak many languages. If I go to a Jola community, I speak Jola. If I meet a Manding, I speak Mandinka. In my experience, if you go to a different community than yours such as the Jola community, they like you more when you speak their language. It is a symbol of modesty and they consider you a part of the community.

Why do you think children in Sénégal, or in African countries in general, are multilingual? Are they better at learning languages?

I think the reason why children speak different languages is due to multi-ethnic, multi-language communities. They tend to exchange and be in contact from a young age and it facilitates their ability to learn languages quickly. I think it’s an asset to learn a language. There are some regions such as Saint Louis where people speak only one language: Wolof. In rural areas, they speak more languages because they learn from their exchanges. This happens especially in areas where we have many ethnic communities who speak different languages. For example, in Casamance, there are the Pular, Jola, Mandinka, Manjak, Sereer, Balante, Wolof, so this allows the community to speak different languages.

Are there any languages in Sénégal that are endangered, and how are people maintaining the more minority languages?

Based on researchers, we are losing the Sereer language; the community does not use that language as much. Instead, we are noticing that Wolof is spoken in more and more places in Sénégal. People who go to Dakar looking for jobs are also obliged to speak Wolof. In some rural areas like Fouta, people are protecting their languages. Parents even encourage their children to speak local languages at school and some ask their children not to speak a language other than theirs for fear of language loss. Wolof is one of the national languages and the most spoken, although some people from different groups would prefer to promote their language. However, not everyone speaks Jola or Mandinka, so Wolof is used to communicate between groups. We know that the French language was imposed on us as a French colony, but today we are conscious of the fact that our local languages are very important in acquiring knowledge. Hence, young students and researchers are promoting the use of local languages in the system of education.

What lessons can language learners take away from multilingualism in the Sénégalese contexts?

Broadly, multilingualism is a chance for people to learn from other cultures. It’s also an opportunity for us when we can speak different languages to integrate easily. We can have different friends, facilitate communication between people and ensure peace. When we speak different languages, we identify ourselves in other people, it breaks barriers and ends the differences. I think language is a fundamental part of peace and acceptance in Sénégal. It plays an integral role in social harmony and development.

What is your suggestion for language learners of African languages who live abroad?

I suggest immersion to those people. I recommend that they come to Sénégal or the region where their language of interest is spoken, and discover it by themselves. There are centres and schools to learn those local languages. An intensive program of their desired language would be the fastest for them. You can also look for an online tutor, but that would be slower. 

No matter where we come from, languages are the tools by which we gain access to communities. Omar shared with us how growing up in Sénégal naturally made him into a polyglot. If you want to learn more about multilingual communities, we recommend the following media: