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New African language course offers students a global perspective

  • Teaching Wolof
    Teaching Wolof  Belonging to the Senegambian branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Wolof is not a tonal language in which one distinguishes the meaning of word through their pitch or intonation. It is instead more rhythmic or percussive and can even be played on drums.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary is offering an African language course for the first time this semester.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ali Colleen Neff is teaching the AFST 306 class on basic Wolof, a language seen predominantly in the African countries of Senegal, Mauritania and Gambia.

Belonging to the Senegambian branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Wolof is not a tonal language in which one distinguishes the meaning of word through pitch or intonation. It is instead more rhythmic or percussive and can even be played on drums.

{{youtube:medium:left|UGqNdxaUFcc, Neff brings world of Wolof to W&M}}

"The drum patterns reflect the percussive patterns or rhythms of the speech," Neff said. "If you hear a drum rhythm from Senegal a lot of the time you can identify what words are being said or what village is being spoken about."

Seven years of research

Neff, who was hired by William & Mary in 2013 as a sabbatical replacement for Anthropology Professor Brad Weiss, previously studied Wolof through the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute, a fellowship in Senegal and work with linguist Sokhna Arame Fall, who was at the forefront of Wolof education under the Leopold Senghor regime, the first independent Senegalese government.

“As I learned the beauty of this language, which opened up new ways of thinking for me, I thought it would be a wonderful language to teach to my students as they seek new ways to approach cultural studies and launch studies and projects in the Senegambia region,” Neff said.

The syllabus for the current semester took a month to develop and draws on seven years of Neff’s own research collecting Wolof-language books, field recordings and instructional materials.

“It is difficult to find Wolof-language teaching materials, so I have to generate many of the worksheets and lesson plans myself,” Neff said. “I was lucky enough to work with a talented William & Mary student this summer, Tanisha Ingram, who gave me a lot of feedback on my methods, so I have a better sense of what aspects of cultural and language study will appeal to students here.”

Gaining insight

Since the formation of the Africana studies program in 2009, it has been the intention of faculty within the program to offer students the opportunity to learn a variety of African languages. However, due to budget constraints, it has been difficult for the university to hire specialists in African languages, said Professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas, the current director of the program of Africana studies.

The Africana studies program is "inherently interdisciplinary," said Assistant Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Artisia Green.

"Our faculty affiliates extend all throughout the College of Arts & Sciences as well as the School of Education," said Green. "Our respective disciplines are the bases through which we explore the history, cultural traditions, political and economic circumstances of people of African descent. "

There are three tracks within the Africana studies program: African-American studies, African studies and African-diaspora studies. Students majoring in Africana studies are required to take an Africa-related foreign language, whether that is a native African language such as Swahili, Yoruba and Zulu, or a language related to the African diaspora such as Arabic, French, Portuguese or Spanish.

"Professor [Iyabo] Osiapem teaches classes on Caribbean linguistics, and I teach African-American English; what we didn't have was anyone who was focusing on anywhere on the African continent," said Associate Professor of Education, English, Africana Studies, and Linguistics Anne Charity Hudley.

"So we started to talk about how each track shouldn't just have the colonizing language like Spanish or French or Italian as the language that you would study because that's a little bit ironic … It's not to say people in the United States or of the African diaspora don't speak those languages as their first languages, but we wanted something that showed that intersection between language and culture and Creolization and movement.”

Many of the professors in the Africana studies program applaud the idea of an African language course, commenting on how it can expand a student's worldview.

"When people study a language of a community, it’s a way to get insight into that community’s history, worldview, and identity," said Osiapem, senior lecturer of Africana studies and linguistics. "This is a unique opportunity at William & Mary because we don’t usually have courses on African languages."

When asked what she hopes students will take away from the course, Neff emphasized how inclusive the course is to not only students but in terms of the material covered.

“All are welcome, no matter whether they have experience with the language or culture, or if it’s new to them. It really is a very accessible language, and it’s designed for beginners,” said Neff. “By the end of the course, students will not only be able to speak basic Wolof on the ground in Senegal, but also to absorb Wolof-language films, music, popular culture, newscasts, and literatures, which can open up a whole new world."