Senegal can be divided into two distinct linguistic areas: the north and the south. The northern linguistic zone is between Mauritania and The Gambia. This area has three main languages: Wolof, Pulaar, and Sereer. The southern linguistic zone, located south of The Gambia, has a larger number of languages than the north and as a result there is much more linguistic fragmentation.
According to Ethnologue, 38 languages are spoken in Senegal (Lewis, et al, 2013). Of these 38, French is the official language, with Jola, Malinka, Pulaar, Sereer, Soninke, and Wolof deemed national languages by Article I of the 1971 Senegalese constitution. In 2001, Article I was expanded, with the addition that “all codified languages are national languages”. In order for a language to be considered officially codified, it must have a defined writing system as well as an elementary grammar. Once this is done, “the language is recognized at the institutional level as the national language and it can be taught in schools” (Sall, 2009, p. 316). However, this policy is more symbolic, as newly established national languages are rarely, if ever, included in the curriculum. The most recent language to be codified was Bayot, located in the Casamance region. As of this writing, 20 languages have been codified and are considered national languages.
Wolof is the lingua franca. It is spoken by approximately 43% of the population as a first language, and by about 90% of the population as a second or third language (Leclerc, 2010). The spread of the Wolof language has been termed “Wolofization” by researchers. This pattern of Wolofization has caused concern for speakers of less widely spoken languages, who fear that their languages will die out.
As the official language, French is the primary medium of instruction in the public education system. However, there have been a few attempts to include indigenous languages. The biggest and most recent effort was from 2002-2008, when 155 experimental bilingual classes were opened using six national languages (Jola, Malinka, Pulaar, Sereer, Soninke, and Wolof. (Ndiaye & Diakite, nd). Overall, the students in the bilingual classes tested the same or above their counterparts in the traditional classes. Despite these positive results, however, the actual implementation was beleaguered by a host of issues, such as inadequate teacher training and support, as well as severe delay in distribution of teaching materials. For example, in one case, the materials only arrived a year after the bilingual classes had ended (IDEA International, 2008).
In March 2012, Macky Sall was elected president. Sall is Toucouleur (a Pulaar speaking ethnic group) and speaks three of the national languages: Wolof, Sereer, and Pulaar. As of this writing, he has not made any official statements regarding the inclusion of national languages in the education system.