With Canadian Thanksgiving Day just behind us and American Thanksgiving coming soon, for many this is a season for paying attention to all the things we normally take for granted—a time to remember to be grateful for our families, our lives, our work, and all the other blessings of being alive.
One very important thing that almost no one ever remembers to be grateful for is language.
Those of us raised speaking English in countries like the United States and Canada, where English is woven into the fabric of our culture, often forget what a rich blessing this is. We forget that many people don’t experience their language in a seemingly endless tide of books, art, and music. To many people, even the simplest manifestations of language are unavailable.
In the country of Senegal on the west coast of the African continent, most children grow up with the unspoken understanding that their first language—the language of their family, home, and community—is somehow lesser, and one of the ways this is communicated is in the process of education. Senegal has a long history of delivering education (and most culture, books, and art) in French, a language that most of the country’s children do not speak or understand.
But this is beginning to change.
The government of Senegal, inspired by smaller scale projects led by various NGOs, has agreed to give over a portion of the curriculum to an initiative seeking to solve this problem in the early years of primary education. The USAID/Senegal Lecture Pour Tous (LPT) (Reading for All) is supporting the government of Senegal in its efforts to advance the early-grade reading through its national reading program. The program is assisting the Ministry of Education (Ministère de l’Education Nationale - MEN) with producing evidence-based books and learning materials for students in public and daara Koranic schools through grades 1-3 in six regions (Diourbel, Kaffrine, Kaolack, Louga, Matam, and Fatick). The program is encouraging the use of mother-tongue instruction and communications that promote social and behavioral change. It supports a comprehensive professional development for teachers through training, coaching, and supervision. The program is also making an effort to encourage families and communities to become more involved in their children’s education. Through an evidence-based research initiative, USAID/Lecture Pour Tous is developing a strong policy framework to increase and sustain long-term student reading outcomes. We at SIL LEAD are thrilled to be a part of this initiative. Working with Chemonics International, SIL LEAD has been developing grade one student books and teacher guides for the Seereer language.
One of the simplest expressions of language that most English speakers would likely overlook follows a tune that originated in the 1700s and has been adapted to numerous songs (e.g., Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), but has become most well known as the sing-song jingle we learn as small children to help us memorize the English alphabet.
What if your language had no Alphabet Song?
That’s a problem our consultants have tackled during our work in Senegal. The SIL LEAD team in Senegal is currently being led by Béatrice Konfe and has had the support of eight SIL LEAD consultants.* Below is the song they and their Senegalese collaborators have come up with for learning the Seereer alphabet (there are also equivalents for Pulaar and Wolof). It’s just one of many small first steps that can and should be taken so that something we as English speakers take for granted (the rich diversity of the linguistic, artistic, and cultural heritage of every language community) can be shared.
Watch to the end and sing along to learn a new alphabet!
* SIL LEAD Senegal Consultants: Christopher Darby, Jorunn vik Dijkstra, Elisabeth Gerger, Jeffrey Heath, Beatrice Konfe, Clare Orr, Norbert Rennert, Zakaria Sore, and Heesuk Toumieux