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Fluidity of L1 in Multilingual Societies

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In this paper, I shall look at various issues concerning the L1 in multilingual societies such as the Gambia. I shall begin by examining key concepts relating to the subject matter at hand, and then go on in detail about the subject itself before finally looking at the merits and demits of the matter. The subject is important as a part of the continuing debate over language issues in many Third World Countries. The Gambia like other Third World Countries is a nation in which many different local languages are spoken. However, the official language is a foreign language, English which was inherited as part of its colonial heritage. The multiplicity and diverse nature of languages in countries such as The Gambia have often been cited by many development experts as impediments to development.

However, though the multiplicity and diversity of languages in Africa and elsewhere does have disadvantages and does sometimes pose a problem to development especially when it comes to such important issues as choosing a language for official use, there are also some important benefits as we shall see later on in this essay.


Before going any further, we should first of all establish an understanding of some of the elements that I would be discussing. The first of these is the concept of fluidity. The word fluid as used in this sense means something that is not fixed, is liable to change at any given time or lacks consistency. Thus when we say that the L1 is fluid, we are simply saying that it is very hard to determine the L1 or that it is not constant.

Another concept that we would be coming across is that of L1 or first language. First language (sometimes called native language, mother tongue, or vernacular) is the language a person learns first. Correspondingly, the person is called a native speaker of the language. Usually a child learns the basics of their first language from their family.

Good skills in native language are essential for further learning, as native language is thought to be a base of thinking. The term "mother tongue" could be misleading. In some paternal societies, mothers are from different places and speak different dialects or languages. Yet their children usually only speak their local language. Only a few will learn to speak their mother's language like natives. Actually, mother in this context probably originated from the definition of mother as source, or origin.

Finally we would also be dealing with the concept of multilingualism. Multilingualism is the ability to understand and use more than two languages. Thus a multi lingual society is a society in which several languages are spoken. This is usually the case in such heterogeneous societies as The Gambia, which because of its historical and geographical background has a populace that is made up of people of differing ethnicity and cultures. This proliferation of languages means that most Gambians are competent in many different languages such as Jola, Fula, Mandinka, Wolof etc.


Having familiarized ourselves with the basics, we shall now proceed to see why the issue of the L1 is considered fluid in The Gambia and other multilingual societies. There are several factors responsible for this.

One of the major factors responsible for this fluidity is that people born in multilingual societies such as The Gambia are from birth exposed to different languages and thus are able to acquire not just a single L1 but a set of L1s. This is certainly not the case in monolingual societies. Thus an Englishman who is born and grows up in Newcastle for instance would be able to speak only one language (English) while a Gambian born into a typical Gambian community such as Kerr Sering would be exposed to different languages such as Wollof, Mandinka, Jola, Fula etc. There is thus a tendency that he/she would be able to gain competency in more than one language simultaneously culminating in he/she having two or more L1s.

There is also the issue of predictability. In a monolingual or even a bilingual society such as Canada, it is possible to predict what the L1 of a child born into such societies would be. Since it in a monolingual society, there is only one language to contend with, the implication is obvious. Since the child would normally be exposed to only this one language, then it is fairly certain that that would be his or her L1. This is certainly not the case in multilingual societies. In The Gambia a child grows up surrounded by a diversity of languages. The ones that he/she would acquire as L1s would depend on the level of exposure to those languages. In such societies it would be very hard to either control or to predict the level of exposure to the various languages present within the society as this is determine by factors over which one has no control such as location, the ethnic composition of the society, movement of people in and out of the child's environment as well as the level of interaction between the various people living within the community.

Thus in The Gambia one can find people living within the same community but having different sets of L1s. One Gambian might have two L1s, while another might have three and so on. You could also find someone who has Jola, Mandinka, and Fula as his/her L1s, another with Wolof and Serer as his/her whilst yet another has Wolof, Mandinka and Jola as L1s.

Finally there is also the fact that the L1 is easily lost and replaced in a multilingual society. A child in The Gambia might start off with Wollof but lose competence in it for various reasons (such as transfer to another part of town) and become more competent in Mandinka. Thus Mandinka would replace Wollof as the child's L1. A child could also start up with many L1s such as Mandinka, Jola, Wollof, and Fula but due to disuse lose competence in some and thus end up with a reduced number of L1s. In the example given above for instance, if the child should lose competence in Fula and Jola due to the social conditions present, then he/she would end up with only Mandinka and Wollof as L1s. In this case, the number of L1s would have been reduced from 4 to 2.




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