The African Language Program

Language Coordinator: Mariame Sy

The African Language program at MESAAS offers regular classroom instruction in three African languages: Swahili, Pulaar, and Wolof. Additionally, Yoruba and Zulu are offered through the Language Resource Center's Shared Course Initiative. These five languages together cover wide geographical areas in East, West and Southern Africa.

About the languages

Pulaar (Fula/Fulani/Fulfulde/Peul)

The most geographically widespread language in Africa, Pulaar the first language of millions of people in various areas from the westernmost point of the African continent (Senegal) southward to Sierra Leone, and eastward across Mali to Sudan. Pulaar is also used as a very important means of communication (by non-native speakers) in some areas of West Africa, and holds the status of national language in Senegal. Mauritania, Guinea, and Mali. Although the traditional nomadic life has resulted in many varieties of the language (over twenty different dialects), Pulaar is a regional language because all these varieties are mutually intelligible to some degree. Because of the dispersion of the Pulaar people throughout West Africa, Pulaar is a language of survival as well as a key to accessing a wealth of authentic historical, anthropological and religious materials. Pulaar people embraced Islam quite early and, a good deal of great Islamic figures are from the Pulaar ethnic group. The prominent role played by Pulaar people in West African history is reflected through their rich written and oral heritage

Swahili (Kiswahili)

Swahili is the national language of Kenya and Tanzania and the medium of instruc¬tion in primary schools in Tanzania where it is studied as a subject at university level. Swahili serves as a regional lingua franca throughout Eastern and Central Africa. spoken by over 100 million people in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and parts of Malawi, Mozambique, and Somalia. There are also many native Swahili speakers on the Indian Ocean islands of Unguja and Pemba (which together make up Zanzibar), Lamu, the Comoro Islands and the northwestern part of Madagascar. Arabs and Persians visited the East African coast as early as the second century A.D. These visitors settled in Africa and married local people. Travelers from Portugal, Germany, England and various Asian countries also went to East Africa. Each group left its mark on both the culture and the language.


The main lingua franca of Senegal and The Gambia, is spoken as a first or second language by the majority of populations in those two countries in most social contexts. A recognized national language in both Senegal and Mauritania, Wolof ’s status as Senegal’s lingua franca stems from its function as a widely used communication tool. Wolof traders have traditionally traveled throughout West Africa, and Wolof is an important trade language. Due to its widespread use as a trade language, it has great socio-economic significance. Wolof also plays a very important role in Senegalese culture. Many famous singers and filmmakers such as Sembene Ousmane produce their songs and films in Wolof. Ousmane Sembene's literary and cinematographic work places him today as the "father" of African cinema.


One of the three national languages of Nigeria, Yoruba is the first language of approximately 30 million West Africans, and is spoken by populations in Southwestern Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Sierra Leone. It is also one of the prominent languages and cultures of the diaspora, greatly influencing the social and religious lives of millions of people in the Caribbean. The powerful influence of the Yoruba culture and language is seen in the emergence of Oyotunji Village in South Carolina. Historically a number of semi- independent peoples loosely linked by geography, language, history and religion, Yoruba people eventually came to form great cultural cohesiveness, and a collective identity under the domination of Old Oyo state. Today, there are more than fifty traditional Yoruba city-states recognized whose traditional kings often have considerable local and national political power.


Zulu is the language with the largest number of speakers in South Africa (over 10 million people), and the dominant language in KwaZulu-Natal, the largest province in the country. Zulu is one of South Africa’s official languages, and is also widely spoken in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, and Lesotho. Zulu forms the basis for understanding the other closely related Nguni languages such as isiXhosa, Siswati and Ndebele. Originally a small clan, the AmaZulu were transformed into a powerful empire in the 19th century by the Emperor Shaka, whose direct descendant is the constitutional monarch of the Zulu people today. Shaka conquered many ethnic groups whose customs and traditions remain the cornerstones of Zulu culture.

About the program

It is the philosophy of the program that any serious understanding of Africa begins with language study. Our courses therefore expose students to authentic multimedia materials that allow them to work toward both communicative and cultural competence, while developing the four major skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). The overall aim of the program is to help students gain the linguistic skills necessary to function in all areas of practical need. Our curriculum and proficiency goals for each year are designed based on the guidelines of he American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.


Elementary level

  1. Recognize all contrastive sounds and distinguish question and answer intonation.
  2. Express basic feelings and needs, as well as ask and answer questions related to these needs and feelings.
  3. Understand short utterances, and express basic courtesy.
  4. Correctly spell, read, and interpret written text in areas of practical need covered in the material.
  5. Begin to develop basic cultural insight.

Intermediate level

  1. Understand, and interpret both written and spoken language in a variety of situations.
  2. Elaborate on descriptions, and discuss likes and dislikes.
  3. Comprehend speech on familiar topics, discuss opinions, and cultural differences
  4. Recognize various types of spoken and written language.
  5. Expand cultural knowledge.

Advanced level

  1. Create detailed descriptions using complex sentence structures.
  2. Narrate events.
  3. Understand, and interpret complex culturally charged language such as that generally found in tales, or historical narratives.
  4. Present an analysis of an authentic oral or written text to an audience, respond spontaneously to questions, and formulate and defend a position.
  5. Further knowledge into the histories, politics, and social settings of the speakers of the language of concern.