Young Senegalese Turn to English

26 July, 2016

It is late afternoon in the small village of Fandene, Senegal. Students begin to arrive at the local school. They arrive on bicycles, motorbikes, and donkey carts. Under the shade of a giant baobab tree, they chat in the dusty school yard.

Lycée Fandene is a typical rural high school in Senegal. The school has no electricity. There are no glass windows, only square openings to let in light and fresh air. The students have no books. They crowd into a small classroom, their elbows touching.

Isidore Tine is the teacher. He is young, energetic and always smiling.

He leads the class singing "Clementine," an American folk song.

Oh my darling, oh my darling

Oh my darling Clementine

Welcome to the English Club of Fandene.

Fandene is a rural village about three hours east of Senegal's capital, Dakar. The students come here from nearby villages to practice speaking English.

The English Club of Fandene, Senegal
The English Club of Fandene, Senegal

The English Club of Fandene is just one of a growing number of English clubs in Senegal. With no tuition or tests, the clubs offer a low-pressure way to learn English. And, for many Senegalese, it is their only opportunity to learn English.

Tine started the English Club of Fandene three years ago. It is has grown to become one of the most active clubs in the area.

"When I came here I saw that the students they did not practice their English. And I said that creating the English club is an opportunity for me to help the students speak and practice the language, because the mastery of the language is in the speaking."

To encourage communicative learning, Tine uses songs, games and discussions of current events.

English in Africa

Senegal is a country of 14 million people in western Africa. It is among the more peaceful, stable, and democratic countries in Africa. French is the country's official language. Most Senegalese also speak a local African language, such as Wolof.

A salt mine at Lac Rose (Pink Lake) just outside of Dakar, Senegal
A salt mine at Lac Rose (Pink Lake) just outside of Dakar, Senegal

English is an official language in 21 African countries, mostly in the eastern part of the continent. Africans in Anglophone countries sometimes have mixed feelings about the language. On the one hand, it is a major advantage to speak the language of globalization. On the other hand, English was imposed on them by British colonialism.

Senegal was a French colony until 1960. Most Senegalese do not connect the English language to colonialism. For them, French is the language of the colonizers. French remains the language of business, government, and education in Senegal.

Mouhamadou Diouf is the president of the English Teachers Association of Senegal. He says English has been "gaining ground" on French in recent years.

"I think the first influence comes from the USA as the leading country. And they see the USA as a success story and they just want to do like them."

Diouf says American culture is widely spread in Senegal. In the 1970s and 80s, American musicians like James Brown and Michael Jackson were very popular. Today young people love rap music.

Diouf says that Senegalese are also inspired by the progress of African Americans -- from slavery to the election of President Barack Obama. Many African Americans have roots in the Senegambia region of Africa. Their ancestors were captured and brought to the New World as slaves. Obama made an emotional visit to the slave port of Gorée in 2013.

Mouhamadou Diouf on the island of Gor<I>&#</I>233;e in the Atlantic Ocean.
Mouhamadou Diouf on the island of Gor&#233;e in the Atlantic Ocean.

Diouf says he sometimes has to remind young people that Obama is America's president, not Senegal's.

Challenges in education

Even with an openness toward American culture, few Senegalese can speak fluent English. English is taught as a subject in secondary school, but Senegal's public school system is struggling.

A United Nations study says that only about 25 percent of Senegalese graduate from high school. Only about 42 percent of adults can read and write. Diouf is especially concerned about the quality of education in rural areas.

"Sometimes you have over 100 in a class, which makes it impossible to have what we call communicative activities, group work, because the noise it will bring about. The second thing is most of our schools are in very poor areas, with no access to computers, no access even to electricity, even electricity is a problem for 50 percent of our schools, so let alone having access to [the] Internet."

Robin Hinders chats with her students at the University of Thies in Thies, Senegal
Robin Hinders chats with her students at the University of Thies in Thies, Senegal

Robin Hinders teaches English courses at the University of Thies. She is an English Language Fellow, supported the U.S. Department of State.

"Many times when you ask a student, ‘Why do you want to learn English?' the first response I almost always hear is, ‘I love English! I like it because it makes me feel happy when I speak English.'"

Hinders says people on the street often approach her and want to speak English.

Faly is a tea seller in Thies, Senegal. He is teaching himself English.
Faly is a tea seller in Thies, Senegal. He is teaching himself English.

One of her many local friends is Faly, a tea seller at the bus station. He has taught himself basic English. Faly, who cannot walk, is happy when Hinders sits down at his table for tea.

Faly: Robin! You sit down.

Robin: Your children are happy?

Faly: Very happy

Robin: And they're healthy?

Faly: Very healthy

Robin: Good. I'm glad.

Faly: And you?

Robin: I'm fine.

Faly: Your family?

Robin: Everybody is good.

A key to success

In addition to Hinders' fellowship, the U.S. Department of State supports several educational exchange programs in Senegal. One program is called the Young African Leaders Initiative or YALI. The YALI program brings sub-Saharan Africans to the U.S. for leadership training. English fluency is required for all candidates.

Eran Williams is the Regional English Language Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Senegal.

"We're bringing young African leaders from every country in Africa to the United States to study, to meet with other Africans, to meet with the president. And we're only bringing people who speak English. So countries like Senegal, Francophone countries, need a lot more help in preparing their candidates for the YALI program."

The YALI program is looking for students like Jean Celestinn. He is a member of the English Club of Fandene. He always sits in the front of the classroom and pays extra close to Tine's lessons. He says English is the "passport of our future."

"I realize that English is the one language in the world. Everywhere you go you will meet people that speak English. And if you don't know, if you cannot speak English, you will have some problem."

Isidore Tine (right) teaches the English Club of Fandene, Senegal.
Isidore Tine (right) teaches the English Club of Fandene, Senegal.

Tine closes the English lesson with a famous children's song.

If you're happy and you know it

Then you'll really want to show it

If you're happy and you know it

Clap your hands

I'm John Russell

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Adam Brock wrote and reported this story from Senegal. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

donkey cartn. a cart with an underslung axle and two lengthwise seats

baobab n. a short tree with an enormously thick trunk and large edible fruit.

typicaladj. normal for a person, thing, or group : average or usual

elbown. the joint where your arm bends

tuition n. money paid to attend school

communicative learning n. an approach to language teaching that emphasizes speaking and interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of study.

Anglophoneadj. English-speaking

imposev. to establish or create (something unwanted) in a forceful or harmful way

colonialismn. control by one country over another area and its people

Senegambia - n. a region of western Africa watered by the Senegal and Gambia Rivers

fellowshipn. an amount of money to pay for food, housing, etc., that is given to someone who teaches or does research at a university

Francophoneadj. French-speaking