The former Wuli West representative at the National Assembly of The Gambia made the statement during a workshop convened by the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) to discuss mechanisms for language policy development for The Gambia within the context of the Language Plan of Action for Africa (LPAA).
“Politically, we say we are independent, but economically, we are not. But even more so, culturally, we are still enslaved because the tongue that I am using here is an alien tongue,” he said.
“The reason why this hall is not filled is simply because I am using an alien tongue, which is alien to the vast majority of people in this country. Therefore, they could not come here, and this is their meeting. This is where they matter because we are talking about identity, the language is our identity; the identity that was negated by colonialism.”
Speaking further he referred to the continent as an irony, saying: “It is one of the richest, if not the richest continent in the world, yet our people remain wretched of the earth. It is the continent with the greatest number of languages, yet foreign languages sway in the domain of officialdom and scholarship. Right from a very delicate age, our children are subjected to using a language for education which is alien to them and to their parents.”
Mr Jatta said further: “Do you know how much harm we are doing our kids, subjecting them to learn a language whose culture they know nothing about? A language is rooted in a culture. To better understand a language, you have to understand the culture in which it is rooted.
“That is why he we have so much difficulty in having language. English is always the casualty in all examinations in this country and elsewhere in the African continent.
“We have over 2,000 languages in Africa, and there are only one or two countries which are exceptions to the rule, only two countries, as far as I know, where their own languages are used in official spheres.
“Somalia is number one. They used Somali from pre-school to the university. Swahili will be second, a poor second, because in Tanzania, you have two official languages – English and Swahili.
“Somali, they had three languages when the military took over in 1969 or so. By 1974, Somali became the only language in the domain of officialdom and scholarship. Some African scholars prejudicially adduced previously that multiplicity of languages in Africa is a curse instead of enrichment.
“Many languages are not specific to Africa. My professor conducted a study in Hungary when I was at the university in France, and he discovered that there were 40 official languages in Hungary.
“Currently, Switzerland, how many official languages do they have? Three or four. None of you talks about that, that Switzerland has three official languages or even four… and here we are still struggling to be what we cannot be without the fundamental instrument that we have to live in this world; that is our languages.”
Deliberating further, he stated: “They are talking about cross-border languages. What does that mean? You see this multiplicity of languages is an enrichment for the African continent. There are many languages which are common to almost every country in Africa. We are talking about Swahili; Swahili is not the only language.
“In fact, there are languages which are more spread than Swahili. Fulfulde is more spread than Swahili. Every country in West Africa recognises itself in Fulfulde. It is spoken in every country in West Africa and beyond, even in Central Africa. That is an advantage. If I have no qualm to learn French and English, why should I have qualm to learn Fulfulde and Swahili as African languages? But we come to our language and say, ‘Hah, this is foreign’.
“Fulfulde is not foreign to anybody in this continent. It is an African language with African values shared by many countries. Soninke is another language, even though at a smaller level, but it is spoken in The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Mauritania and even some parts of Ivory Coast. What we called Cross-border Languages we also technically call it Languages of wider communication.”
These languages, Mr Jatta avers, are all pertinent to the socio-cultural cohesion and economic development of Africa and her people.