Meeting summaries

Summary Reading Group Session #8

The reading was taken from Mitsch’s dissertation (2016). Bordering on National Language Varieties: Political and linguistic in the Wolof of Senegal and The Gambia. 

As the dissertation is based on Wolof spoken in Senegal and The Gambia, we made sure to invite Wolof speakers to share their experiences so they could give us insights into the varieties of Wolof they speak. This made our discussion insightful and fascinating. The meeting started at 5pm.  

The dissertation focusses on the way Wolof speakers’ ideologies, and sociolinguistic variation help shape a political border.  

Due to some of the participants having no prior experience of linguistics, Clyde, one of the co-organisers, explained some of the terms used by the author: 

  1. She clarified that when the author is talking about ‘language ideologies’, it’s simply referring to the beliefs or feelings about languages as used in their social world. For example, beliefs about certain languages being good or bad, romantic, ugly etc. Are not based on facts. 
  1. In broad terms, what the author means by ‘language practices’ is how language is written, read and spoken. 
  1. ‘Sociolinguistic variation’ is about different ways in which a language is spoken. This can depend on where the person comes from, whether the person is a male or female. 
  1. Sociolinguistic is about the study of language and society. It looks at language policy, accent, dialect, language and gender, etc.  

After a brief explanation of the above terms, Clyde posted a series of questions for our discussion: 

Q1) On page 66 of the article, ‘Wolof is a language without a standard variety, in the sense that there is no prestigious variety and very few people are aware of national orthographies, so its written form is limited’. To what extent do you agree with this statement? Standard is to be understood as ‘good/correct/prestigious’ here.   

Q2. Is Senegalese Wolof superior? 

Q3. p. 94: Which elements of the ‘context’ in which Wolof is used is Saloum affects the extent to which the way they speak conforms with the table below?   

The first question addressed the standard variation. This was an intense debate between various participants regarding which variety of Wolof is standard. The participants were able to make that critical analysis of their thought and experiences with a lot of compelling arguments. One of the participants argued that there is no standard variety of Wolof language. He was not sure what criteria people used to be able to determine the standard Wolof variety. From his point of view, all regional varieties of Wolof are equal.  

Another participant asserted that there is a standard Wolof variety: the Fanafana variety. He considered the Fanafana Wolof speakers as a different variety from those other Wolof speakers in the urban Kombo and Senegal. However, it was argued that for many the words of Fanafanas are difficult to understand. He further emphasized that during his teaching in Kaur senior secondary school, there were a lot of Fanafana communities in that region and the speakers of this variety sound different when compared to other Wolof speakers in the urban area. 

During the discussion, it was further clarified that Fanafanas are recognized to be a set of people who live in rural areas. Therefore, the variety of Wolof they speak is not influenced as much by other European languages such as English and French. Some suggested that people who come from the village speak a more authentic variety of Wolof than those in the urban area. 

One of the participants, a Fanafana speaker, acknowledged that the Fanafanas speak more original versions of the Wolof language. He later emphasized that they can speak a series of sentences without encompassing any foreign words which is common practice among other speakers Wolof speakers in The Gambia and Senegal. He also alluded to the fact that Fanafana Wolof speakers can understand speakers of other varieties of Wolof more easily than they can understand Fanafana Wolof speakers. Therefore, he regarded the Fanafana dialect as the most prestigious. 

The meeting further highlighted that the concept of Fanafana Wolof being unadulterated is relative; however, this is due to its unadulterated status (not influenced by the colonial language) that some people admire the dialect. It was argued that most Fanafana speakers change their dialect when they move to the urban area and the majority of its speakers feel shy to be heard speaking the dialect in public with other Wolof speakers. This led us to wonder why, if the Fanafana variety of Wolof is so prestigious, speakers tend to disassociate with it when faced with other Wolof speakers in urban areas? 

Q2) Our second focussed on the alleged superiority of the Senegalese Wolof. Some recalled that Senegalese Wolof is used in a wide range of domains in Senegalese society, including Parliament, the media, entertainment etc. People who attended the meeting seemed to agree that the Senegalese Wolof has a great influence in The Gambia due to the greater number of Senegalese in our urban area and also their Ndaga Music. 

The meeting also highlighted that the Senegalese Wolof comprises many French words and that many of its speakers often cannot speak without including French words. This trend also applies to the Wolof spoken by the Gambians, although with more focus on English words.  

Q3) The final question explore phonological variation between Gambian and Senegalese Wolof. We spent some time reading the words and discussing how they would be pronounced, whether we felt there were differences as suggested in the reading. We discovered that the answers were far from being straightforward. We also needed the help of our Wolof speakers regarding some of the translations from Wolof to English, e.g. the writer seemed to have translated a ‘house’ as (cherr) instead of (nack). 

The meeting came to an end at 6.30pm.  

Summary Reading Group Session #7

The reading was taken from Melissa Marong’s Ph.D thesis, entitled “Gambian English: Syntactic Features of a West African Variety of the English Language”. In the work, Marong attempts to outline the syntactic features of Gambian English and discuss these features alongside other West African varieties of the English language. 

The meeting started at 17:00hrs GMT, on Tuesday 7th June 2022. In her opening remarks, Dr Clyde Ancarno, on behalf of the three co-organizers (Momodou Lamin Demba and Lamin O. Ceesay are the other two co-organisers) emphasized that the reading group is open to the general public (i.e. one does not have to be a linguist to participate). She added that there is plenty of room for research in both indigenous and exogenous languages in The Gambia. She expressed her delight working with teachers whom she described as responsive and up to the task.  

The meeting took a thematic approach. We focussed on addressing the following questions: 

1. How many varieties of Gambian English can you think of (or expect to be present in The Gambia if you’re not familiar with English in The Gambia)? E.g. Gambian English spoken in Gambian pop music, English spoken by College students, English written in newspapers or spoken by broadcasters. Region-based Gambian Englishes. 

2. How frequently do you use or do you hear others use the present or past continuous instead of the present simple or past simple?  

3. Are there marked differences in the way speakers from different ethnic groups speak English? Are there differences in the way people from different regions of The Gambia speak English? 

In addressing the first question concerning the varieties of Gambian English, it was discussed that different varieties of English exist in The Gambia. It was observed that the English used in the courts and legal documents, for example, differs widely from the English used on the radio, television and newspapers, or the English used on the streets, in pop music, and also different from the English sometimes used in the service barracks and stations. However, people also stressed that not much is know about the exact features of these varieties of Gambian English. 

On how frequently users of Gambian English substitute the simple present and simple past with present continuous and past continuous, we concluded that it was commonplace to come across such constructions in contemporary Gambian English but that this was restricted to certain circles where knowledge of the rules seems to be the factor responsible for people using such expressions. The researcher’s choice of participants was discussed (i.e. the education background of most participants was low) hence, and it was argued that the author’s findings might be due to participants’ limited knowledge of English rather than a characteristic of the syntax of Gambian English. 

On whether marked differences exist in ethnic and regional Englishes in The Gambia, some of us clarified that whereas ethnicity-related differences may exist in Gambian English at the phonological level, regional variations are almost non-existent. Yet, it was agreed that where these variations seemingly occur, they are dictated by the high presence of a particular ethnic group whose phonology has influence on that particular community’s spoken English.  

Two other phenomena were discussed. The first (which remains contested) is the ability of people of Fula ethnic extraction being better at learning other languages, English included. Two of the participants supported this view although there has not been any formal conclusion on the claim. The second issue that came up during the meeting was the closeness of Gambian English to Sierra Leonean English. A number of factors were identified for tis closeness. One of these was that the Gambia and Sierra Leone share a common colonial past. In addition, both countries shared civil servants because the colonial governor in Sierra Leone was overseeing both colonies then. The issue of higher education, as many Gambians before and after independence studied in colleges and universities in Sierra Leone, was also evoked. Gambians either continued to work there upon finishing or came home to join the ranks. Another factor was that since the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, many families from Sierra Leone relocated to The Gambia. The regular employment available to many such people was teaching and this saw the involvement of many Sierra Leoneans teaching various subjects in Gambian schools, hence the smooth integration of Sierra Leonean English into The Gambia’s education system. 

The meeting ended with a reminder that the next meeting will be held on 5th July, 2022 at 17:00hrs GMT (details to be shared later). 

Summary Reading Group Session #4

The reading was: Peter, L., Wolf, H.G. and Bobda, A.S., 2003. An account of distinctive phonetic and lexical features of Gambian English. English world-wide, 24(1), pp.43-61. 

We received a few apologies (busy start of term for many of us!) and the staff of the University of The Gambia was also still on strike at the time of the meeting. As we were fewer than usual, we were able to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. The range of expertise and experiences in the room was impressive: multilingualism, language in education policy, Manjago, Gambian literature, teaching…

We started by exploring what was said about the suggestion in the article that English is not used for interethnic dialogue. Based on a series of real-life examples from participants, we established that this is largely true apart from a few specific domains where people’s level of proficiency in English allows them to use English rather than a Gambian language in interethnic communication should they want to. This applied to academia in particular (English is the official language of instruction throughout education in The Gambia).  

The topic of proficiency in English was also broached. Most Gambians were said to be unable to speak English. This was linked to the broader issue of literacy in the country. Gambian languages were reported to be used ‘for everything unless it’s official’. Official situations involving people unable to speak English led us to explore in great depth language brokering in The Gambia, some of which breath-taking! For example, the case children as young as 3 years old translating for their parents was mentioned. Children from certain areas were painted as being highly skilled multilinguals speaking several languages from a young age (e.g. in Brikama the urban Kombo area of The Gambia). On the whole, ‘bringing someone with you if you can’t speak English’ seemed a largely accepted and recognised practice. Some singularities of the Gambian English-speaking context, however, were also noted, e.g. the fact that ‘some people who have not been educated speak better English than people who’ve gone through grade 12’, or the rote learning of a small range of fixed phrases among children, etc. particularly to interact with tourist and ask them, for example, for sweets or footballs. What counts as ‘speaking English’ was therefore dissected.  

Interpretation in The Gambia more generally was also discussed. Interpretation in churches (e.g. see Karlik on interpreting in the Manjaku churches of The Gambia HERE), in medical settings as well as other settings was there talks about. It was noted that to date very little has been written about interpreting in Africa.  

Our discussions around the topic of comprehensibility of English were also insightful. The important fact that certain English varieties are not comprehensible to some people who have learnt English as an additional language was talked about. This led us to ask questions such as: Which English variety is the most comprehensible in The Gambia? What model of English is most relevant to The Gambia? What is the purpose of speaking in English in The Gambia (e.g. communicating in The Gambia only) and what does this entail for English language teaching? To be understood at a local level was said to be the most important goal of communication in English and British English was presented as the variety meant to be spoken in The Gambia. Concerning ELT, enabling learners to be fluent in a range of Englishes was deemed to be desirable and ways to achieve this were discussed, notably through exposing learners to a range of English varieties.  

We also learnt about the interferences of specific Gambian languages in English language production. For example, Mandinkas (largest ethnic group in The Gambia) tend to replace the sound /g/ by /k/ because it doesn’t exist in their language.  

To conclude, and this was an excellent link to our next session on the topic of language in education in The Gambia, the World Bank July 2021 report: Loud and clear: Effective Language of Instruction Policies For Learning was alluded to because of its commitment to ‘teaching children in a language they understand’. We noted that the World Bank was a significant education donor in The Gambia.    

Summary Reading Group Session #3

The reading was: Lawson, S. and Jaworski, A., 2007. Shopping and chatting: Reports of tourist–host interaction in the Gambia. Multilingua 26.

We had around a dozen participants again. Our conversation was delightfully lively and probably best accounted for by the series of questions below which we explored. 

Does the article allow us to get insights into the nuances of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia?

Participants acknowledged that the aims of the article were clearly stated at the start and that as such it fulfilled what it set out to do. Nevertheless, ways in which this research could be supplemented were discussed at length. The absence of analysis of naturally occurring data was posited as a possible limitation of the study. However, the diaries were also said to avoid the issue of the Observer’s Paradox (term coined by William Labov), i.e. it was suggested that if the interactions between hosts and tourists had been recorded, the hosts would have most likely adjusted the way they speak. While the limited time dedicated to the data collection (one week apparently) was acknowledged, some of us suggested that more/a different kind of data would have allowed to:

  • account for the impact of the age of the tourists on the interactions;
  • contribute a less coy account of how hosts verbally sought sexual relationships; 
  • focus less on ‘bumsters’ and more on other kinds of hosts, e.g. drivers, National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) workers, etc. involved in the tourism industry;
  • share a more detailed/accurate account of the range of languages involved in tourist-host interactions (e.g. Swedish, German, Gambian languages) and the levels of proficiency in English in particular.

Who are the so called ‘bumsters’ and what are the issues with this term?

We had a fascinating debate around the term ‘bumster’. It highlighted the importance of labelling in research and other endeavours. It was felt, for example, that the term possibly carried negative connotations which are primarily fed by (i) the tourism industry itself which warns tourists coming to The Gambia against interacting with the so called ‘bumsters’ and (ii) the government’s continued discourse around reducing their number, which the article echoes when it talks about strides taken by the Gambia Tourism Authority to control their growing numbers. Overall, a wide range of other issues/topics were discussed in relation to the term ‘bumster’, it was notably suggested that it:

  • refers to people found in tourist attractions in The Gambia (e.g. beach) who engage with tourists for the purpose of achieving an economic transaction (these greatly vary, hence the difficulty in saying who a ‘bumster’ is); 
  • fails to account for the variety of people ‘doing bumsting’ in The Gambia (it was suggested that women and children can be labelled as such); 
  • doesn’t reflect the reasons why these local entrepreneurs, etc. become involved in the tourism industry, namely to provide for themselves and their families;
  • is a rather non-discriminatory/vague term. In that regard, participants raised the issue of who does the labelling and why, of how intentional someone’s ‘bumsting’ needed to be for them to be labelled a ‘bumster’, the processes of otherisation underpinning the calling of some and not others ‘bumsters’, etc. 

We seemed to agree that the term was loaded and that, for the purpose of research at least, other more objective terms such as ‘local entrepreneurs, beach vendors, etc.’ were probably better suited, unless the participants define themselves as ‘bumsters’.

Is the word ‘toubab’ offensive?

As might be expected, and bearing in mind the power imbalance between ‘toubabs’ and ‘bumsters’, we also discussed the term ‘toubab’. Although we started by translating ‘toubab’ (equivalent terms are found throughout sub-Saharan and North Africa) by ‘white’, we rapidly recalled that a more accurate translation would be ‘from Europe or the West’ and/or ‘fair in complexion’. It was emphasised by one of us that ‘fair in complexion’ in The Gambia might include people who may be labelled as ‘brown’ or ‘black’ in other countries. An anecdote was shared regarding a Gambian woman returning to The Gambia after some time in Europe and who, because of her ‘fair complexion’, was called ‘toubab’. Another anecdote was built on the premise that children calling out foreign visitors ‘toubab’ was offensive. This was compared to how offensive calling people in The Gambia ‘black’ would be. Regarding the latter, it was noted that ‘toubab’ was used respectfully by children who are merely repeating what they have been taught to say to foreign visitors they might encounter. Without explicitly saying so, we therefore had a lengthy discussion around the pragmatics of ‘toubab’ as it is used in The Gambia.  We largely focused on what the speakers intended to mean and how it was interpreted by the hearers. Please note that pragmatics is typically defined as an area of linguistics concerned with the study of what people mean-locution, how it is interpreted-illocution and what impact it might have on our surrounding-perlocution. Also of relevance to pragmatics was our observation that the mismatch between Gambian children’s intended meaning when using the word ‘toubab’ and the interpretation of the word by tourists pointed to the topic of intercultural communication breakdowns in tourist-host interactions in The Gambia. 

Sadly, we did not have time to discuss the migration of this term, e.g. as ‘babtou’ instead of ‘toubab’ in Banlieue French which incorporates elements of French verlan, a type of backward slang (e.g. the order of syllables is changed), which has been in use in the banlieues and urban lower classes of French society for the past 60 years or so.  

How insightful was the representation of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia in the article?

Towards the end of the meeting, and drawing on all the insights gained from the discussions summarised above, it was concluded that the ‘toubabs’ were responsible for the reification of the notion of ‘bumster’. In other words, we came to conclude that the term ‘bumster’ was the byproduct of the tourist gaze. This, some convincingly argued, meant that we needed to be mindful of whose vision of the world we were engaging with when conducting research. Tourists were said to deserve attention for what they are, namely social actors for whom only a superficial, fixed interpretation of the world they encounter while on holidays is possible. As such, those interested in doing research involving tourists, for example, were encouraged to carefully consider this and whether terms such as ‘bumsters’, etc. were acceptable descriptions of their research participants.  

Summary Reading Group Session #2

The reading was: Juffermans, K. and McGlynn, C., 2009. A sociolinguistic profile of The Gambia. Sociolinguistic Studies 3(3), pp.329-355. 

We had around a dozen participants. 

Our Gambian participants usefully shared their thoughts on the extent to which the article was representative of the language situation in The Gambia. Overall, they agreed that it was a fairly accurate description despite the challenges of the limited amount of linguistic data available to sociolinguists interested in The Gambia’s multilingualism. The issue of assuming a correlation between ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in particular was raised.

The lack of information regarding the methodology underpinning the article was raised, with reference, for example, to the fact that the authors did not talk much about their own linguistic repertoire. 

The richness and complexity of multilingualism in The Gambia was explored at length. The virtual absence of research into some of the language varieties spoken in The Gambia, e.g. Balanta and Bainuka (Bainuk people are said to be the first inhabitants of Casamance; in The Gambia and elsewhere Bainuk people are now largely Jola-ised and tend to speak Jola). The issue of language endangerment was also evoked, e.g. while discussing the Manjago language. Some of our members also alluded to two  language varieties encountered in The Gambia about which not very much at all is known, namely: Koñaajinka, a language spoken by seasonal workers coming from Guinea Bissau, and Mansoanka, a Gambian language (the Mansuanka tribe, originally from Guinea Bissau is said to face extinction – you can watch a video about it here).

As might be expected the importance and challenges of language ideologies—inevitably informed by The Gambia’s colonial past—in conducting research into a highly multilingual society such as The Gambia underpinned some of the discussions. The issue of the unspoken yet tangible hierarchisation of languages, with English often perceived as better, more powerful, etc. was discussed. The impact of politics on language policy (including but not limited to language-in-education policy) was also briefly discussed.

Last but not least, the imminent introduction of national languages in the curriculum of the University of The Gambia in 2021-22, i.e. the introduction of option modules for several national languages which will be taught as additional languages (for speakers not fluent in these languages and for literacy development purposes for fluent speakers), was also evoked during our meeting.


You will find here all the summaries of all our reading group meetings. So, if you have missed a meeting you can refer to this page.