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definition - Languages_of_Mali

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Languages of Mali

Languages of Mali
Official language French (Standard)
National languages Bambara, Bomu, Tieyaxo Bozo, Toro So Dogon, Maasina Fulfulde, Hasanya Arabic, Mamara Senoufo, Kita Maninkakan, Soninke, Koyraboro Senni Songhay, Syenara Senoufo, Tamasheq, Xaasongaxango
Lingua francas Bambara, French, Fula (esp. in Mopti region), Songhai
Other important languages Arabic (Classical), English

Mali is a multilingual country. The languages spoken there reflect ancient settlement patterns, migrations, and its long history. Ethnologue counts 50 languages. Of these, French is the official language and Bambara is the most widely spoken. Altogether 13 of the indigenous languages of Mali have the legal status of national language.

  Sign in French, at a monument in Bamako.



French, which was introduced during the colonial period, was retained as the official language at independence and is used in government and formal education. However, estimates of the number of people who actually speak it are low. Figures estimated in 1986 give a number of 386,000 speakers of French in Mali, derived from the numbers of school attendees.[1] This would mean roughly 21% of the population speak French, by 1986 figures, a number considerably lower than those who speak Bambara.[2] Almost all people who speak French in Mali speak it as a second language. 1993 estimates are that there are only around 9,000 Malian speakers of French as a first language.[3] French is more understood in urban centres, with 1976 figures showing a 36.7% "Francophone" rate in urban areas, but only an 8.2% rate in rural areas. French usage is gender weighted as well, with 1984 figures showing 17.5% percent of males speaking French, but only 4.9% of women.[4]

Bambara, a Manding language (in the Mande family) is said to be spoken by 80% of the population as a first or second language. It is spoken mainly in central and Southern Mali. Bambara and two other very closely related Manding languages Malinke or Maninkakan in the southwest and Kassonke (in the region of Kayes in the west), are among the 13 national languages. Bambara is used as a trade language in Mali between language groups.

(Bambara is also very close to the Dioula or Jula language (Julakan), spoken mainly in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. The name "Jula" (Dioula in French translation) is actually a Manding word meaning "trader.")

Other Mande languages (not in the Manding group) include Soninke (in the region of Kayes in western Mali), Dogon languages (of Pays Dogon or Dogon country in central Mali), the Bozo languages (along the middle Niger).

Other languages include Senufo in the Sikasso region (south), Fulfulde (Peul in French) as a widespread trade language in the Mopti region and beyond, the Songhay languages along the Niger, Tamasheq in the eastern part of Mali's Sahara and Arabic in its western part.

Thirteen of the most widely spoken indigenous languages are considered "national languages."

Most formal education for the deaf in Mali uses American Sign Language, introduced to West Africa by the deaf American missionary Andrew Foster. There are two other sign languages in Mali. One, Tebul Sign Language, is found in a village with a high incidence of congenital deafness. Another, Bamako Sign Language, developed in the after-work tea circles of the cities; it is threatened by the educational use of ASL.


Most of the languages of Mali are part of the Mande language family, which is generally accepted as part of Niger–Congo, Africa's largest phylum. Other languages include the Dogon languages, perhaps another Niger–Congo branch, and the Senufo languages, which are unquestionably part of that family. Mande, Senufo, and Dogon stand out among Niger–Congo because of their deviant SOV basic word order. The Gur languages are represented by Bomu on the Bani River of Mali and Burkina Faso. Fulfulde, spoken throughout West Africa, is a member of the Senegambian branch.

Other language families include Afro-Asiatic, represented by the Berber language Tamasheq and by Arabic, and the Songhay languages, which have traditionally been classified as Nilo-Saharan but may constitute an independent language family.

  Spoken languages

The following table gives a summary of the 49 spoken languages reported by Ethnologue (NB- the sort by numbers of speakers does not work optimally):

Language (Ethnologue) Cluster Language family Legal status L1 speakers in Mali* L2 speakers in Mali** Main region
French Indo-European Official 9,000 1,500,001 All (esp. urban)
Arabic, Hasanya Arabic Afro-Asiatic: Semitic National 106,100  ? NW
Bambara, Bamanankan Manding Mande National 2,700,000 8,000,000 ?? South, most of country
Bomu Niger–Congo / Gur National 102,000  ? SE
Bozo, Tiéyaxo Bozo Mande National 117,696  ? Central
Dogon, Toro So Dogon National 50,000  ? Central-east
Fulfulde, Maasina Fula Niger–Congo / Senegambian National 911,200  ? (some L2 speakers) Central
Maninkakan, Kita Manding Mande National 600,000  ? W
Senoufo, Mamara (Miniyanka) Senufo Niger–Congo National 737,802  ? S
Senoufo, Syenara Senufo Niger–Congo National 136,500  ? S
Songhay, Koyraboro Senni Songhay (Southern) National 400,000  ? (a trade language) N
Soninke (& Marka/Maraka) Mande National 700,000  ? NW
Tamasheq Tamashek Afro-Asiatic / Berber National 250,000  ? N
Xaasongaxango, Khassonke Manding Mande National 120,000  ? NW
Bankagooma Mande None? 5,085  ? S
Bobo Madaré, Northern Mande None? 18,400  ? SE
Bozo, Hainyaxo Bozo Mande None? 117,696  ? Central
Bozo, Jenaama Bozo Mande None? 100,000  ? Central
Bozo, Tièma Cièwè Bozo Mande None? 2,500  ? Central
Dogon, Bangeri Me Dogon None? 1,200  ? Central-east
Dogon, Bondum Dom Dogon None? 24,700  ? Central-east
Dogon, Dogul Dom Dogon None? 15,700  ? Central-east
Dogon, Donno So Dogon None? 45,300  ? Central-east
Dogon, Jamsay Dogon None? 130,000  ? Central-east
Dogon, Kolum So Dogon None? 24,000  ? Central-east
Dogon, Tene Kan Dogon None? 127,000  ? Central-east
Dogon, Tomo Kan Dogon None? 132,800  ? Central-east
Dogon, Toro Tegu Dogon None? 2,900  ? Central-east
Duungooma Mande None? 70,000  ? S
Jahanka Mande None? 500  ? SW
Jalunga, Dyalonke Mande None? 9,000  ? SW
Jowulu Mande None? 10,000  ? SE
Jula, Dioula Manding Mande None? 50,000  ? (very close to Bambara) SE, all?
Kagoro Manding Mande None? 15,000  ? W
Koromfé Niger–Congo / Gur None? 100  ? SE
Maninkakan, Western Manding Mande None? 100,000  ? SW
Marka Mande None? 25,000  ? SE
Mòoré Niger–Congo / Gur None? 17,000  ? SE
Pana Niger–Congo / Gur None? 2,800  ? Central-east
Pulaar Fula Niger–Congo / Senegambian None? 175,000  ? W
Pular Fula Niger–Congo / Senegambian None? 50,000  ? SW
Sàmòmá Niger–Congo / Gur None? 6 villages  ? SE
Senoufo, Sìcìté Senufo Niger–Congo None? 4 villages  ? SE
Senoufo, Supyire Senufo Niger–Congo None? 364,000  ? S
Songhay, Humburi Senni Songhay (Southern) None? 15,000  ? N
Songhay, Koyra Chiini Songhay (Southern) None? 200,000  ? N
Tadaksahak Songhay (Northern) None? 30,000  ? N
Tamajaq Tamashek Afro-Asiatic / Berber None? 190,000  ? N
Zarmaci Songhay (Southern) None? 2 villages  ? NE
* First language / mother tongue speakers. Figures from Ethnologue.
** Second or additional language speakers. It is difficult to get accurate figures for this category.


might be similar in Mali:

In the Sahara:

  • Tumzabt language in the Mzab
  • Ouargli language at Ouargla
  • language of Touat and Gourara (called "Taznatit" by the Ethnologue, but that name is in fact used for most of the Zenati languages)
  • language of Touggourt and Temacine
  • Tidikelt
  • Tamahaq, among the Tuareg of the Hoggar (see Tuareg languages)
  • "Tachelhit", the dialect of the western ksours (see also Figuig). Despite the name, this is not the same as Moroccan "Tachelhit". These languages, though the most common, are not found in many parts of the country. An interesting tidbit: in 1566 a man by the name of Francis DuBway [doo-BWaw] was traveling in Mali and heard a very obscure language (the splelling has been lost, but it is likely that this was Tamahaq language), was inspired and wrote a poem. This prose, eventually, after much much revision became what we now call "The Mockeraina"

  Songhay languages

The Korandje language of the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala is a heavily Berber-influenced variety of Songhay, a language more widely spoken far to the south in Niger.

  Language Policies & Planning


French is the official language. According to Decree 159 PG-RM of 19 July 1982 (Article 1) thirteen indigenous languages are recognised by the government as national languages.[5]


French is part of the standard school curriculum. There is a new policy to use Malian languages in the first grades and transition to French.


  1. ^ Anne Lafage. French in Africa. Carol Sanders (ed.) French Today: Language in Its Social Context. pp 215-238. Cambridge University Press (1993) ISBN 0-521-39695-6 p. 217. This cites a report by the Haut Council du Francophonie, Bull. du FIPF (1986), pp. 10-12.
  2. ^ 386,000 in a population of ~ 8.2 Million in 1986, according to Data FAOSTAT, year 2005 : http://faostat.fao.org/faostat/help-copyright/copyright-e.htm (last updated 11th February 2005)
  3. ^ ethnologue.com, cites: Johnstone (1993)
  4. ^ Anne Lafage (1993), p. 219, citing Perrot: 1985 for both 1974 and 1984 figures.
  5. ^ Leclerc, Jacques. L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde, "Mali," Laval University, Canada. Citing: GAUTHIER, François, Jacques LECLERC et Jacques MAURAIS. Langues et constitutions, Montréal/Paris, Office de la langue française / Conseil international de la langue française, 1993, 131 p


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