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Is English a suitable official language for The Gambia?

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Official language, according to Wikipedia, is referred to as the language used within a nation’s government – its courts, parliament, administration, etcetera – to run its operations and conduct its business. Unesco (2013) defines it as “a language designated by law to be employed in the public domain.” On the other hand, national language is the language commonly spoken by dwellers of a particular country or state. Hence, the official language of the Gambia is English, while its (unofficial) lingual franca (i.e. national languages) are Wolof and Mandinka. 

Now, Let’s ask ourselves these: Why the multilingual Gambia? Why is English her official language? Is there no suitable indigenous language? Won’t Gambian populace be affected at the international level if the foreign tongue, English, is replaced with an indigenous language?  Which of the indigenous languages is the most suitable language to replace English?

The Gambia, a country whose economy is dominated by farming, fishing, and tourism, shares historical roots with many other West African nations like Sierra Leon, Senegal, Nigeria, and the likes, in the slave trade, which was the key factor in the placing and keeping of a colony on the Gambia River, by the Portuguese and the British. The land gained independence, and became a republic on 18 February 1965 from the United Kingdom, and joined the Commonwealth of Nations, from which it withdrew in October 2013.

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Encyclopedia Britannica views The Gambia as a nation that adopts English as its official language, though with Mandinka and Wolof as its lingua franca. Wolof represents the lingua franca for the west coast Kombo area while Mandinka is dominant in the up-river divisions. The Gambia is a country where Arabic is generally believed to be the language of the Muslim clerics, and/or Islamic scholars, and French – a recognised neutral foreign language. Generally speaking, there are at least 9 languages (of Niger-Congo language family origin) spoken in The Gambia. Apart from English which is the official language spoken in schools and public offices there is also Wolof, Mandinka, Serer, Sarahule, Fula, Mandjago, Jola, Susu and the Aku’s Creole (pidgin English).


Findings have shown that most Gambians are in fact multi-lingual as the majority of the populace can speak their own tribal tongue, a second language as well as English – a language that has gained the status of official language in more than 175 countries. So, does this really mean that English is the most suitable language for the Gambian populace?

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Some scholars believe that the need for an official language in a country usually arise in order to form a relationship of common traits. Communication is vital for any people to successfully work together. In order to protect this bond universal language is essential. English in this context is therefore seen as a neutral language – most suitable for achieving this. It is also believed that the status of English language in the world today is enough to spring up a nation’s integrity and strengthen her international relations. And those I believe led to the adoption of the language particularly by most multilingual African countries like The Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, to mention a few.

In additional, some are of the opinion that: one, to systematically use local tribal languages for school instruction in The Gambia would require the preparation of educational materials in some prominent indigenous languages, hence the use of English for government, and education across the country; two, the costs of producing books and other educational materials in local languages at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels may be cost prohibitive, even when theoretically possible; and three, majority of Gambians want Western language textbooks, because some believe that English as a medium of instruction in schools provides the best instruction for the future of the students. Local language education is therefore seen as second class.

However, one argument against instituting English as the official language is that it takes away from a multicultural society by denying citizens and immigrants the practice of their heritage. It is important to celebrate diversity in our society but at the same time, set standards of our customs. Some even see it as a colonial relic, because it serves as an emblem of imperialism, and a colonial “weed” on the INDEPENDENT African fields. That’s why many argue that English bares negative impacts and resonances because it is a language of imperialism. 

Also, some scholars argued that the growing importance of English is a way in which the power of the West is wielded, and this linguistic power a new, post-colonial way of spreading influence. Language can also be considered a “repository of cultural identity” that shapes one’s perceptions and beliefs. More so, researches have shown that English threatens not only to make those who speak it more alike, but to mold them in the culturally specific Western image that it carries in its syntax.

Opponents of English therefore concluded that such English based educational programs do not increase educational advancement in the country. They asserted that Western education was brought to The Gambia by the European colonial powers and as such Eurocentricism was part of its baggage. In order for education to liberate itself from the Eurocentric colonial legacy, Gambian education should be grounded in her indigenous cultures as primary vehicles for social transformation. 

Anyway, I strongly believe that there is nothing determination, cooperation and dedication cannot achieve. We all must be ready to face the challenges. China, Japan, and Arabian world are great today because they value their cultural and linguistic heritage. Wolof and Mandinka languages are already codified and spoken by almost 99.5 percent of the populace. So it would be very easy to adopt any of these, or even both as the official languages of this great nation.


Give this a thought: Having an indigenous language as official language is a necessity; using foreign tongues is a depravity.



Mutiu Olawuyi is head of English at the West African International School, Bakau.


Author: Mutiu Olawuyi‏


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