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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities

English in West Africa - Gambia

A Research Project at the Department of Linguistics
Institute of English and American Studies
Humboldt University, Berlin


The Gambia: Brief Introduction


Extract from: Wolf, Hans-Georg (2001). English in Cameroon. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 85. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
[see this volume for the references given]


The Gambia is the smallest of the anglophone states in West Africa and the smallest African state per se. It has a population of about 1,300,000 (July 1998 est.; see US.G. CIA 1999, online). Contacts with English traders at the mouth of the river Gambia go back to 1588, the year the English acquired The Gambia from the Portuguese (Hansen, Carls, and Lucko 1996: 177). Struggles with the French, who had established Albreda as an enclave in that area in 1681, persisted until the Treaty of Versailles in 1883, which settled British claims to the Gambia River. In 1816 the British founded Bathurst, today Banjul, as a naval base and settlement for freed African slaves. At first, The Gambia was jointly administered with Sierra Leone (Dalphinis 1986: 215), until it became a British colony in 1843 (after 1888 with its own governor), and in 1857 the French made Albreda over to Great Britain. The Gambia was declared a protectorate in 1894; in 1902 the British occupied the hinterland. In 1965 The Gambia gained independence and became part of the Commonwealth (Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 4 1978: 334; The New Encyclopaedia Britannica vol. 5 1991: 103).

Except for her 80 km long Atlantic coast line, The Gambia is completely surrounded by her francophone neighbor Senegal, with which it shares close linguistic and cultural ties. All ethnic groups and languages that exist in The Gambia can also be found in Senegal (cf. Grimes 1996). In 1981 the two countries formed a short lived confederation, which was terminated in 1989, mainly for political and linguistic reasons.

The official language of The Gambia is English. With the exception of Dalphinis’ detailed study (1986) of Aku, the variety of Krio spoken in The Gambia, and some initial findings by Simo Bobda, Wolf, and Peter (1999) on the standard variety of English, practically no literature exists on English in The Gambia. It is worth noting that, small as this country is, it hosts approximately 400,000 to 500,000 refugees from Senegal (particularly the Casamance region), Guinea and Sierra Leone; i.e. refugees constitute almost one-third of the overall population. Depending on the duration of their stay, especially the influx of a large number of Krio-speaking Sierra Leoneans may have some impact on the linguistic situation and on the varieties of English, especially Aku. Aku is the mother tongue of the Aku, a small community of about 6,600 people (according to Grimes 1996: 272), who were brought to The Gambia in the 19th century to help in the British administration, military, and policy force; some also came as traders and missionaries (see Dalphinis 1986: 215-231).

There is considerable confusion in the literature relating to the variety or varieties of West African pidgins and creoles spoken in The Gambia. For example, in her Pidgins and Creoles, Todd (1990: 13) shows both Gambian Pidgin and Aku on a map. This would imply that two varieties exist. Gramley and Pätzold (1992: 426), on the other hand, only write of Pidgin English when they refer to The Gambia; no reference to The Gambia is made in their list of creolized forms of pidgin in West Africa (only Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Cameroon are mentioned). Mufwene’s (1992: 1111) short survey of English-based pidgins and creoles in West Africa only lists Aku in the context of The Gambia. Likewise, Holm (1989: 417) and Grimes (1996: 272) do not account for Pidgin English, only for Aku as a variety of Krio in The Gambia. They, however, introduce Patois as an alternative term for Aku. These references to Patois probably go back to Hancock (1969: 8), who claimed that Gambian Krio is called “Patois” in that country.

How do these statements compare to findings by Peter (Humboldt University Berlin) and myself, gathered during a research stay in The Gambia in September 2000? First, none of our interviewees used or knew the term Patois. It is not clear to us why linguists have introduced it to the linguistic landscape of The Gambia. Second, and more importantly, there is no variety of PE that exists apart from Aku. What Gambians popularly refer to as PE is in fact Aku. Sometimes they use the interchangeable term Broken English, to cover a range of forms from utterances of speakers with a limited competence of English to the L1 variety of Aku. This, however, only holds true for L2 speakers of Aku or those Gambians who have no command of Aku; the Aku do not refer to their own language as anything else but Aku. Unlike PE or Krio in other anglophone West African countries, Aku is not used as a lingua franca in The Gambia because other languages fulfill this role (see below). Crystal’s claim (1995: 102) that “Krio is widely used as a lingua franca” thus simply does not reflect the sociolinguistic reality in this country.

Thus, with respect to the acquisition of English, the situation in The Gambia is different from that in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and the anglophone part of Cameroon, where many children are able to speak Krio, or PE, when they start school (cf. section 3.3.3.). The number of L2 speakers of English is not known, but since English, generally speaking, is only acquired through formal education, the percentage of speakers with some degree of competence can be correlated with the literacy rate, which is estimated to be 38% (US.G.CIA 1999, online). English functions as an important means of communication; however, its use is restricted to the official domains only. It also plays an important role as a source of insertions in code-switching between Gambian languages (cf. Haust 1999).

Besides English and Aku, Grimes (1996: 271-273) lists 18 other languages spoken in The Gambia. Mandinka L1 speakers constitute the largest group with about 40% of the population, other major languages include Fulfuldé, Wolof and Jola. Because of this dominance, Mandinka is still the main lingua franca. The number of L2 speakers of this language is not known, but Mandinka is further strengthened in the sociolinguistic landscape of The Gambia by the fact that other languages, such as Kalanka, Jahanka, Kassonke, Malinke, Mori, and Bambara, have a high degree of lexical similarity with Mandinka (see Grimes 1996: 272). Fulfuldé and Wolof are also used as contact languages, but not to the same extent as Mandinka. However, from a Senegambian perspective, in the long run Wolof may challenge the role of Mandinka as the main lingua franca. In Senegal, Wolof is the most important language in terms of number of speakers and its function as a lingua franca. Wolof is gaining ground as an L1, as more and more Senegalese are claiming a Wolof ethnicity, a process know as “Wolofization.” Since the Wolof are responsible for much of the Senegambian trade and being Wolof has some prestige, it is possible that Wolofization will spread to The Gambia as well.


Speech sample Gambian English