The Status of English and Other Languages in Senegal

*Oumar Moussa Djigo 


The spread of English around the world and its international status as a lingua franca have shaken many boundaries and laid its tentacles in many countries previously colonised by the British empire. A good number of African countries have also witnessed this ‘linguistic imperialism’ which took the fore at the expense of local languages. As a result, countries like Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Gambia, to quote but a few, have English as their official language. However, West African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin and Senegal have lived under the banner of France during colonisation and therefore adopted French as their certified language in education, media and for any administrative purposes. Despite this fact, the status of English in Senegal has tremendously soared up and Senegalese people learn the language of Shakespeare for different purposes. This paper will primarily deal with the roles and functions of English and other languages in Senegal.


In Senegal, English is taught as a second language. French is the official and colonial language used for administrative and academic purposes. However, there are several ethnic groups, therefore six different local languages are spoken in different parts of the country. Even though English language has grown apace in business, trade, tourism and international exchanges, it is still considered as a foreign language taught at secondary school level. It has obviously gained a prominent place in the Senegalese curriculum as a result of the commitment of its practitioners and the support of foreign English Language institutes such as the British Council and the regional English Language office of the American embassy, but it is still used for specific purposes.

Roles and functions of other languages

The cultural and ethnic diversity in Senegal is a remarkable feature among the western African countries. In fact, there are six officially recognized local languages (Pular, Serere, Wolof, Diola, Soninke, Manding) spoken by different ethnic groups throughout the country.

Despite this multilingualism, Wolof is widely used for communication purposes by the government, at the court, at the national assembly and even as a medium of instruction in education. According to Malherbe (1989), “Wolof is one of the African languages which has gained an undeniable cultural expansion. It has become the ‘Lingua Franca’ of many Senegalese people from different ethnic groups”. This is unarguably true because even the president of the Republic addresses the population in French and Wolof. It has also been found by the international electronic review of the sciences of language (Sudlangues) that 80% of the population use Wolof as a means of communication even though only 44% of them have it as a mother tongue.  Despite these facts, Pular remains a widespread language with 3,450,000 speakers of the language. (

Senegal, like many other countries also hosts immigrants from different nationalities. According to the Ethnologue website, there is a huge variety of immigrant languages such as Bambara ( 70,000), Kabuverdiano (34,000), Krio (6,100), Mooré 937,000), Portuguese (1,700) and Vietnamese (2,500), mainly in the capital city.

As a former French colony, Senegal under the government of Leopold Senghor ( first president and prominent character of the French academy), has adopted French as its official Language despite the burning ambitions of many advocates to introduce the local languages in the national syllabus. According to Diallo a Senegalese writer, “Senghor thought it was evident that promoting the national languages and eventually using them as languages of instruction would be a serious obstacle to the educational, economical and technological advancement of the country”. Scientist and fierce advocate of the national languages, Diop (1955), argued that “the African Languages can and must serve as a means of development for Africa because they can be a medium for knowledge and science”(Cited in Cisse, 2005: 109).

However, local languages such as Wolof, Serere, Pular and Diola are still taught at University level as second Languages in order to help the speakers of those Languages to better understand how their mother tongues work. My brother who studied English at the university had chosen Pular as a second language which enriched his language skills and enabled him to identify the similarities between Pular and other foreign languages.

Senghor’s efforts, supported by the French colonial system were not vain because the status of French as an official language is stated in the first decree of the Senegalese constitution (2001) as follows: ‘The official language of the republic of Senegal is French. The national languages are Wolof, Pular, Diola, Malinke, Serere and Manding”. As a result, French is used as a medium of instruction at primary, secondary and university levels.

Roles and functions of English in Senegal

People in Senegal have always been exposed to English Language through the trade of local goods to and from Gambia, an English speaking country which is almost inside the Senegalese territory. However, English Language Teaching (ELT) was introduced in the Senegalese curriculum during colonialism with the French educational system, which was obligatory for all French colonies. English is therefore considered as compulsory at secondary level for all students. Even though other subjects such as Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic are still studied at school, the study of English is more extensive due to several reasons.

A survey conducted by the British Council in 2011 revealed that Senegal holds the first place in the field of ELT among the French speaking countries in West Africa. This is mostly the result of good training programmes for teachers, dynamic regional English cells, the use of up-to-date teaching methods, efficient English Language centres and a suitable geographical position. The survey entitled The English Language in Francophone West Africa proved that Senegal has a good English proficiency in contrast with other countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Togo and Benin. “Senegal is an open window to foreign cultures from English speaking countries and Dakar is an international platform of exchange which enables people to acquire valid communicative competences”(Kebe, 2001)

It is quite difficult to state that Senegal is among what Griffler (2002) calls ‘the non-mother tongue English speech community’, but English Language learning is compulsory at secondary school and in various fields of graduate and undergraduate studies. English is particularly used in the fields of business, trade and international exchange because Senegal is known as the door of West Africa due to its geographical position, and Dakar has become an international area of exchange hosting summits and conferences on a yearly basis.

The development of an ELT society in Senegal is the result of the collaboration that its practitioners have with foreign English Language institutes. In fact, the association of teachers of English in Senegal (ATES), the United Kingdom and the USA are significantly contributing to the growth and promotion of English through the British council, the British Senegalese Institute (BSI), along with the English Language Institute (ELI) of Dakar and Dakar English Language Centre (DELC). These institutes play a tremendous role in the advancement of the language by investing on professional development programmes and connecting people with suitable learning opportunities.

The Senegalese government has set the ambitious goal to support English in many ways. In fact, English is the only subject matter which has a special office at the ministry of education. The English Language office stands as the advocate of the language in the country and its members are active men and women who cater to all ELT needs, in collaboration with the Senegalese National Council (SNC). I have personally been invited and supported by the English Language office for opportunities related to professional development, teacher training and ELT workshops.

On the national English curriculum, it is written that English is particularly given utmost importance because it facilitates international communication and opens new collaborations with countries such as Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, China and the United Kingdom. This idea of prioritizing English over other foreign languages is highlighted in these insightful words.

A language can be made a priority in a country’s foreign language teaching, even though this language has no official status. It becomes the language which children are most likely to be taught when they arrive in school, and the one most available to adults. (Gradol, 2006).

This idea can easily be related to the status that English language has over the other foreign languages such as Spanish and German in my country. As a teacher of English for young and adult learners, I have realized that both age groups are truly interested in learning English so as to improve their proficiency. As a matter of fact, my low intermediate students are able to use a wide range of communicative skills that they find hard to use in French, a language they have been learning for more than six years. It was surprising to hear one of my young learners say ‘I make less mistakes in English dictations than in French ones.’

On the other hand, the Association of Teachers of English in Senegal has set up innovative activities in order to allow the English clubs from all over the country to enhance and improve their English through academic contests. ‘English Lovers Awards’ is a national broadcasted TV programme which gathers students from different high schools competing on grammar, vocabulary and topical debate themes.

Over the last decade, Dakar has hosted a couple of Bilingual schools which offer  50% of their syllabus in English. The Senegalese American Bilingual school (SABS), Yavuz Selim,  and The West African college of the Atlantic (WACA) train thousands of fluent English speakers in a four-year programme who join high prestige universities in the USA or in the UK. These bilingual schools do not only use English as a target language but they use it as a tool to teach other subject matters such as Science and Technology.

Even though most Senegalese writers use French for their creative writing, an important number of academic books have been produced in the field of ELT and literature. In order to develop our learners’ intercultural competence, local EFL teachers have produced up-to-date curricula and textbooks which are currently used throughout the country. ‘Go for English Senegal’ and ‘Stay Tuned’ are two relevant books written by Senegalese English practitioners that I use with my students. A thorough use of these textbooks enables the learners to acquire communicative competence, the ability to relate to other cultures in a ‘culturally friendly’ classroom.

Many Senegalese scientists, academics, bank professionals and students who participate in international gatherings or who intend to study in English speaking countries are bound to enhance their English proficiency. “Since our local language can’t reach the international level that our country needs, it is high time that Senegal fully integrated English language in its education and in the media”(Thiam,.2013:). Pape Sadio Thiam thinks that French imprisons Senegal in a limited Francophone box, whereas English would open the boundaries to global civilization, communication and consummation. Gradol mentions this idea of competition between English and the other languages in the following lines:

It is in Africa that the most heated debates about the place of English-medium education are now arising. English competes as a medium of education with other post-colonial languages such as French and Portuguese, as well as with local mother tongues. (Gradol, 2006, p.83)

For many young people, English means open-mindedness, freedom and global citizenship. There is a noticeable impact on the young generation of what is known as ‘the American way of life’. Many youngsters in my different classes live with this American dream which they relate directly to being able to speak English fluently. This is the result of the remarkable impact of the media, the music, the films and the new technology that these digital natives are swirling in.

For the purpose of travel and communication, many business people who have never been to school, learn English for their specific needs. They are commonly known as the ‘Modou-Modou” which means illiterate business men with remarkable communication skills. This idea of using English as an additional language is chiefly associated with Kachru (1990) who stated that “the Language now belongs to those who use it as their first language, and to those who use it as an additional language, whether in its standard form or in its localized form”. The Modou-Modou found their way in trade thanks to their freedom and ability to speak English in its localized form. In other words,  the universal power of English is urging Senegalese people from different academic backgrounds and social status to learn the language to satisfy their communication needs because “English is the operating system of the global conversation” (British Council, 2013: 2).


In a nutshell, Senegal is part of the West African Francophone countries with French as its official language but the language of Shakespeare is gaining a prominent place in several fields. Despite the plurality of local languages, the colonial language is used as the medium of instruction in education, in the administration and in the media. Nevertheless, the pro-activity of ELT practitioners and the presence of English language institutes are enhancing and encouraging people to learn and integrate English for the purpose of globalization and international exchange. People in Senegal are aware of the spread of English in the world nowadays and they are willing to integrate and use it for its primary function: communicate with the World to become global citizens.


Malherbe, M. (1989). Les Langues de l’Humanité: Paris: Seghers.

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a Global language. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.

Gradol, D. (2006). English Next. London: The British council. Available online:

British Council. (August 2013). The English effect: The Impact of English, What it’s worth to the UK and why it matters to the World. British Council report. Retrieved from:

Cisse, M. (2005). Langues, Etats et Societé. Dakar: Cheikh Anta Diop university.

Retrieved from:

British Council. (2011). The English Language Francophone west Africa. Retrieved from 

Ethnologue: Languages of the World. (2016) Retrieved from

La Constitution de la Republique du Senegal: Espace Francophonie.

Retrieved from

oumar*Mr. Oumar Moussa Djigo from Senegal, West Africa served as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language at Abbe Fridoil junior high school in Dakar. He has been teaching English to young learners for more than ten years. Oumar also works with adult learners at ELI (English Language Institute) where he teaches English for Banking and Finance classes to professionals of local banks. Equally, he has been tutoring students from bilingual schools who are expected to do better in other subjects and it has helped him learn about science and various other subject matters. He is an open-minded person. He loves meeting new people and enjoys traveling. He is a 2016 Hornby Scholar studying MA in ELT in the University of Warwick, UK. 


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