Senegal is a multicultural place with lots of ethnic groups, local languages, and outside influences coming together every day. As such many languages are spoken here. Here are a few observations about the Wolof, French, and English languages in Senegal.
Here is a short list of Wolof/English vocabularly that one might call "greetings and enough to make people smile." The first syllable of each word receives the emphasis:
- Nanga def? = How's it going?
- Mangi fii (rekk). = It's going (only/very) well.
- Tangana (lowl). = It's (very) hot.
- Mangi dem marche. = I am going to the market.
- Jere Jeff. = Thank you.
- Nyokobo. = You're welcome.
- Jamm (rekk). = Peace (only).
Funnily, the Wolof word for "slave" is Jaam. A short or long "a" is the difference between telling someone "peace" or "slave."
Over the centuries and sometimes over millenia, Wolof picked up loan words from Arabic, French, English, and other languages. It is a true melange here! Here are some sample loan words:
- Salaam aleikum. = Hello.
- Maaleykum salaam. = Hello. (As a response to the first.)
- Torop. = A lot/too much. (Derived from the French "trop.")
- Lougch. = Water. (Similar to the French "l'eau." Assuming it is related.)
Learning Wolof is a fun thing to do in town. People are more than happy to share their language with you, which is also the most useful language here locally.
If you are interested in Wolof - perhaps headed to a Senegalese restaurant? - there is a Peace Corps Wolof language manual available on the Internet. A few phrases can bring you outsized goodwill and understanding when they are not expected.
French is Senegal's official language and perhaps its second-most spoken language.
French influences have been here in Senegal for over 350 years, or more than 100 years before the founding of the United States of America. No other European country has influenced Senegal as much as France.
The French language still matters here. Today, it is my understanding that the Senegalese government mandates the use of the French language in government affairs and schools here. Also, any young Senegalese person who wants to go to university or work in Senegal's capital (Dakar) must know French. Otherwise, they will never make it.
That said, I sense that French may be losing some of its importance. I have heard that many older Senegalese were better at speaking it, probably due to a greater emphasis of the language under the French colonial system. I have also heard that it is hard on many kids to learn in French, their second language, rather than Wolof. Finally, I sense that students are more excited about learning English.
Still, French is an important language in Senegal. And, it is plenty useful if you are here for a holiday. Personally, given my low Wolof levels, French has been my the easiest way to communicate with most people here.
English is a relative newcomer to Senegal, and while there are probably only several dozen highly proficient English speakers in this town of ~12,000, I feel a lot of excitement for learning English. Not a day goes by here when someone does not come up to me and say "hello" or "how are you" to me.
I am not sure why English is so popular here, but I suspect it may have to do with the Internet, where so much content is in English, and economic opportunity, where knowing English can open a lot of doors.