Recognizing International Mother Language Day

Today, Feb. 21, is International Mother Language Day, so we’re looking at some of Africa’s linguistic traditions. Did you know that a child you sponsor in Africa may speak as many as five languages?

By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist

In July 1975, I began a training program for Peace Corps volunteers in Dakar, Senegal. The volunteers were immersed in French and Wolof in the classroom and in field settings. We practiced our bargaining language while speeding along in cars rapides — large, open vehicles painted bright blue and crammed with women, children, chickens and goats — on our way to Dakar’s open-air markets.

Speaking a mixture of Wolof and French, we sometimes saw English phrases painted lopsidedly on cars and walls: “It is forbidden to spit,” for instance.

Tea in different languages

Tea entered most languages from the Chinese in the mid-17th century.

“Spit” is one of about two dozen words common to many cultures that have remained highly stable over time, so they’re useful for understanding language dispersion. In French, to spit is cracher, and spit itself is crachat; Wolof uses tufli and tuflit. Both languages make use of onomatopoeia — the words sound like what they mean — even though English and French are members of the Indo-European cluster, and Wolof belongs to the world’s largest language family, the Niger-Congo.  

As an English speaker, it was easier for me to learn French than Wolof. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute agrees. French, Portuguese and Spanish are relatively straightforward for native English speakers to learn, with their many cognates, similar alphabets and common grammatical structures. It’s tougher for us to achieve proficiency in Hindi, Vietnamese or Thai; Arabic is among the most difficult of languages for Americans.

West Africans move effortlessly between four or five languages.

Yet many of the children in ChildFund’s programs speak three or more languages fluently before the age of 15: First they learn their mother tongue, then a regional or national language — Wolof, in Senegal — and, in school, an international language like Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish.  

In Senegal, I lived in a Pular-speaking district. Wolof and Pular are siblings: Tuttugol (to spit) is clearly related to tufli. My high-school students had already mastered Pular, Wolof, Arabic (the language of Islam) and French (Senegal’s official language). I taught them their fifth language: English.

English is often hard for non-native speakers to learn. Our vocabulary borrows from two sources — Romance (tricky, difficult, arduous) and Anglo-Saxon (tough, hard, thorny). Decades later, I taught English to university students in neighboring Guinea. Guineans also speak Pular, along with Malinké, Soussou and Kissi.

Senegalese children

Children in Senegal show posters in French. Many speak three or more languages fluently before the age of 15 and may learn another in high school.

Just as Romance languages (French, Portuguese and Spanish) all derive from a Latin root, Malinké,  Soussou and the Sierra Leonean Mende dialect belong to the same cluster as Senegalese and Gambian languages such as Mandinke, Bambara, Soninke and Serahuli. Its influence is felt in Liberia and Sierra Leone too. Niger-Congo languages blanket the West African coast, from the Sahara Desert to the River Congo.

West Africans move effortlessly between four or five languages. Not surprisingly, linguistic research suggests language itself originated there. As our African ancestors explored and settled the rest of the globe between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago, these expert language learners took their abstract communications and distinct cultures with them.

Our original mother tongue was an African language. Why not celebrate International Mother Language Day by sponsoring a child in West Africa? Explore one of the 1,500 living languages spoken by nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

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