By Margot Wagner
Margot Wagner: French as a Second Language
Students of French colonial Africa know well that Senegal is renowned for its production of Francophone literature—Léopold Sedar Senghor, Birago Diop, Mariama Bâ, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane are but a few of the literary figures who have helped define Senegalese literature. But having done field work in the country with African studies Professor Victoria Coifman (through Student Project for Amity Among Nations, an independent research program), I became interested in the production and promotion of literature in African languages. French may have been the language of famous Francophone writers, but Senegal is richly endowed with national languages (over 20 distinct languages and dialects are recognized), and only an estimated 20 percent of the population has a substantial command of the French language.
I wanted to know more about the 80 percent of Senegalese who don’t have a strong connection to French. My project therefore studied literature written in Pulaar, a native language in Senegal, and how written Pulaar changed from being written in an Arabic script to a Latin-based alphabet. I examined the Haalpulaar’en movement, a sociocultural movement to promote Pulaar literacy and identity that emerged in the late 1980s and continues today. To assess the effectiveness and importance of that movement, my work also compares the formal (French) and informal education systems operating in Senegal, along with their goals and results. I found that the question of African languages contains many social and political issues, not the least of which is that a Senegalese native has no chance of working in administration if he or she doesn’t speak French. With French-published books costing the equivalent of an average worker’s salary for two months, French remains in Senegal the language of the elite.
This research experience taught me a great deal about myself. Learning to eat with only my right hand, being an independent white woman in a mostly Muslim culture, traveling on buses with goats and chickens, I quickly learned about boundaries and comfort levels, about how I deal with physical and mental stress.