What languages do West Africans speak?

A recent Afrobarometer working paper ("800 languages and counting: Lessons from survey research across a linguistically diverse continent") published by Carolyn Logan of Michigan State, states that less than 2% of Africans identify English, French of Portuguese as the language they speak at home. Such data, which flies in the face of the common labeling of African regions as "francophone", "anglophone" etc., begs the question -- what languages do they use?

In this light, I set out to "remix" some of the Afrobarometer for two major West African languages, Manding and Fulani, that are known by a range of local names but are widely held to be mutually intelligible to varying degrees depending on the region/speaker etc. For comparison's sake, I also included data for French as well as three other major West African languages (Mooré, Songhay and Wolof). Have a look at the embedded Tableau data (here’s the link if the embed isn’t showing up) and see below for further comments and remarks.

Given my own interests and the limits of my expertise, here I will focus mainly on parts of so-called Francophone West Africa. That said, I believe that some of my comments could be fruitfully applied to much of the data related to language and collected by Afrobarometer.

What is a "home language?"

A major part of Logan's article reports on the question of participants' "home language". How was this identified? In Anglophone Africa, the base question was the following:

“Which [Kenyan] language is your home language? [Interviewer prompt if necessary: That is, the language of your group of origin?]”

Here "Kenyan" is a stand-in for the nationality in question (viz. Tanzanian in Tanzania, South African in South Africa etc). Of note is the secondary prompt which "if necessary" specified that an appropriate answer would be "the language of your group of origin".

I cannot speak to the use of the term "home language" in Anglophone Africa (would be curious to hear what others think in the comments), but it instantly struck me as something that did not have a readily available equivalent or one-to-one cognate in French. In Francophone Africa, the question was posed as follows:

Quelle langue parlez-vous à la maison? [Enquêteur: Indiquez si nécessaire: Il s’agit de la langue de votre groupe ethnique]

Assuming that "home language" circulates in anglophone circles as a common term used to refer to indigenous African languages, the French translation is quite distinct. The question "quelle langue parlez-vous à la maison" [litt. 'what language do you speak at home?'] in no way prompts someone to provide a local African language instead of an official Western language, for instance. On the other hand, in French the secondary prompt does specifically state that one is to provide an indigenous African language -- that is, "the language of your ethnic group".

As provided there is no way to parse the Afrobarometer data to know when survey agents in Francophone countries ended up using the secondary prompt or not. Data from 2015 in Côte d'Ivoire suggests that at least in some cases, the secondary prompt was not used; 12.8% of Ivoirians reported speaking French at home in 2013 -- in theory, an answer that would not have occurred with the prompt specifying for "the language of one's ethnic group". Nonetheless, the translation issue between French and English, and in particular the secondary prompt, strike me as partially distorting the data for comparative purposes. Moreover, given Afrobarometer's stated (and laudable) use of African languages in their surveys, it also leaves open the question of how these terms were translated and explained locally on the ground. For instance in the Manding variety of Jula, my natural guess for translating the the French questions would be as follows; note the slight shift in denotational meaning:

Í bɛ́ kán jùmɛn fɔ́ lú kɔ́nɔ? [If necessary: ní ò yé í ká síyakan yé]

Litt: 'Which language do you speak in the courtyard? [If necessary: that is, your ethnic language]

"800 languages": Who is counting?

Logan states that "53,973 respondent across 35 countries identified more than 800 African languages as their home language" (p. 1). With the above discussion of "home language" in mind, one can also interrogate this statistic of 800 -- where does it come from? Delving into the data for seven countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia), the number stems from the listed languages that were either pre-defined for each country or potentially collected in the field. Given the use of the category "other", it seems that the language categories were laid out prior to the survey. Either way, Afrobarometer's current data tracking system does not approach the languages transnationally; in the most recent rounds of surveying, non-Western languages are listed with a country code preceding each language. For instance, in 2014 (Round 6) in Burkina Faso, languages were collected as such, with BFA standing in for Burkina Faso:

  • English

  • French

  • BFA: Mooré

  • BFA: Dioula

  • BFA: Fulfuldé

  • ...etc.

This labeling alone obscures the robust use of certain African language across international borders; for instance, when comparing 2014 (Round 6) data from Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire, the language "Dioula" (Jula) appears on separate rows as "BFA: Dioula" and "CDI: Dioula", respectively.

More complicated are cases where a mutually intelligible language goes by a variety of names; for example, in Côte d'Ivoire in 2014 (Round 6) one finds Dioula as "CDI Dioula", but in 2013 (Round 5) it was under "CIV Malinké/Dioula" in 2013. In Guinea (2013, Round 5) where the French term "malinké" is most widespread, however, one does not even find the language but rather its synonym "Maninka". Moreover, in both rounds in Côte d'Ivoire one finds "Bambara" as a separate language from "Dioula" when in fact the two are commonly regarded as completely mutually intelligible.

Indeed, this whole post and the Tableau dataset and visualization displayed above stem from my original look at Afrobarometer's data for Manding and realizing how much was obscured. What I've shown here only scratches the surface as many languages and their varieties are outside of my own working knowledge, but perhaps something that I will incorporate into a 2.0 remix or future article.

Hopefully will be getting another post together in the near future that looks at and reworks some of the other language related data for Francophone West Africa and beyond. In particular, I can already see some interesting stuff going on when one looks at the languages in which the surveys were reported as conducted...


For Manding I combined the following Afrobarometer listed languages:

  • Malinké/Dioula

  • Bambara

  • Dafing

  • Malinké

  • Maninka

  • Dioula

  • Mandinka

  • Mandinka/Bambara

  • Madingo

  • Mandingo

For Fulani I combined the following:

  • Fulfuldé

  • Poular

  • Peulh/Fulfulde

  • Peulh

  • Pulaar

  • Pulaar/Toucouleur

  • Fulla

For Mooré:

  • Mossi

  • Mooré

For Songhay:

  • Sonrhai

  • Songhaï