Researching foreign language acquisition in anglophone and francophone Africa

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I am Dr Hafissatou Kane, an Intern Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal. My research comprises Grammar, Multilingualism and Contact Linguistics. In this project, I am working with Henriette Hendriks, Professor of Language Acquisition and Cognition at the University of Cambridge, in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. We successfully obtained funding from the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Program in 2022 to investigate adult foreign language acquisition, comparing acquisition of English as a first foreign language (FL1) in The Gambia and as a second foreign language (FL2) in Senegal.

Bilingualism and multilingualism have become the norm for numerous populations all over the world. In Africa, many people speak two or more languages from birth or from early childhood due to the multi-ethnicity and multilingualism of their countries. In addition to the languages available in this local multilingual environment, we frequently also learn the former colonial and other foreign languages. For example, based on the national curriculum of Senegal and The Gambia, the two countries where the research has been conducted, students learn French or English respectively, as their first foreign language, from the start of primary school or even earlier. In both countries, it is possible for learners to also specialise in other international languages at university.

The fact that in Senegal children start with French and in The Gambia, they start with English makes the two countries a very good testing ground for our research question: “Is English acquired differently when it is the first versus the second foreign language for students?” To investigate this, we compared the acquisition of English as an FL1 in The Gambia (typically from age 7) and as an FL2 in Senegal (typically acquired from the first year of secondary school, approximately at the age of 13).

The main purpose of our study is to understand what influences the acquisition of a foreign language. We are examining features of the foreign language; differences between the mother tongue(s) and the foreign language; transfer of features of any other languages known by the learner; age of acquisition. In particular, we are interested in whether learning a first foreign language involves different mechanisms from learning a second foreign language.

100 university students took part in the study: 50 from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal; and 50 from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of The Gambia. Each group was composed of students of two different levels: 25 in year 2 of their university studies and 25 in year 3. The participants were aged between 22 and 40, 60% were male and 40% were female. All were multilingual, for instance, the Senegalese participants speak their native language(s) including Wolof, Pulaar, Serer, Joola, Mandinka, Bambara, Soninke etc. as well as French (FL1), and English, the foreign language they major at university. All 50 of them also happened to learn a third foreign language at school (Arabic, Spanish, German, Portuguese, or Russian, with different levels of proficiency).


Hafissatou Kane with language students at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal

In The Gambia, the participants again are highly multilingual and often speaking several local languages, sometimes 4 or even more languages. These include Mandinka, Wolof, Joola, Seereer, Aku, Fula (Pulaar), Balanta, Bambara etc. However, English was the predominant foreign language in The Gambia, followed by Arabic and a little French and Spanish.

To assess the knowledge of English as a (FL1) in The Gambia and (FL2) in Senegal, Professor Hendriks and I used a variety of linguistic tools as well as collecting data on the language background information of the 100 participants.

I further used the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research funds to spend two months at the University of Cambridge, where I had full access to the university facilities, including access to the university library (online and offline). I benefited from my visit which helped me analyze the data and prepare the reporting of the data gathered in Senegal and in The Gambia, in preparation for a publication in the near future.

Although the research is still in progress, the first findings tend to validate the prediction that there will be both similarities and differences in the FL1 and FL2 English systems. Regarding similarities, the analysis of the data indicates the following same intra-lingual difficulties, and many more.  There are common difficulties for the those with English as FL1 and as FL2 such as errors of concord. Errors of concord occur where the subject and verb in a sentence do not agree, leading to a mismatch between the subject and the verb as indicated by the * in the following examples. When the cat *arrive, the bird *fly away. The dog *chase the cat and the bird *return to the nest.  Errors in quantifiers, words that are used before a noun to signify an amount, are also common to English for FL1 and the FL2 groups.  For example, the quantifiers are incorrect in the following examples as indicated by the * for Let me give *an advice, *Little people actually attended the meeting.

In addition, the Senegalese learners of English show a lot of influence of French. The following are examples of those difficulties. The addition of -s on the English adjectives. For example, one day, a bird was on a tree with *hers chicks. The bird flies away and leaves her *littles birds alone.  Another example of the influence of French leading to errors in English is in the incorrect use of auxiliaries. For example She *is fallen down the stairs. She *wasn’t arrived yet when I got there.

In addition to these general similarities and differences, a surprising phenomenon has been noted from the data. Errors with the use of Have and Be, generally classified as linguistic interference, were found in the Gambian data and exemplified in I’m 6 feet tall and I *have only 12; when I *had your age, immersion programs didn’t exist. 

The final results of the research should tell us more about the role of transfer from one language to another, the role of age on language acquisition and general levels of multilingualism on success in acquisition of a new language. Those results should also have implications for language policies (including education) in Senegal versus The Gambia with regards to the English language development of learners.    

A long-term collaboration in research on foreign languages in Africa between the University of Cambridge and Senegalese researchers could focus on the acquisition of French, which is equally important as English as one of the most spoken languages and means of communication, between Africans, inside the continent and at the international level.  It would be interesting to investigate how English could be further promoted in Francophone countries, and how French could be promoted in Anglophone countries, to provide more openness and exchange at the economic, educational and cultural levels.