Languages of Mali

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Languages of Mali
Town hall of Ouelessebougou, Mali, December 2017.jpg
Sign in French at Ouélessébougou town hall
RecognisedBambara, Dogon, Fulfulde, Manding, Modern Standard Arabic, Tuareg
IndigenousBambara, Bomu, Bozo, Mamara, Maninkakan, Soninke, Songhay, Syenara, Tamasheq, Xaasongaxango
VernacularAfrican French, Hassaniya Arabic
SignedFrancophone African Sign Language
Keyboard layout
KB France.svg

Mali is a multilingual country. The languages spoken there reflect ancient settlement patterns, migrations, and its long history. Ethnologue counts more than 80 languages. Of these, French is the official language and Bambara is the most widely spoken. All together 13 of the indigenous languages of Mali have the legal status of national language.

Language usage[edit]

A 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. Estimates of the number of people who actually speak French 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 (Bambara: Bamanankan), a Manding language (in the Mande family) is said to be spoken by 80% of the population as a first or second language.[citation needed] 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. It is used as a trade language in Mali between language groups.

(Bambara is also very close to the Dyula language (Dyula: Jula or Julakan; French: Dioula), spoken mainly in Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. The name "Jula" 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) and the Bozo languages (along the middle Niger).

Other languages include Senufo in the Sikasso region (south), Fula (Fula: Fulfulde; French: Peul) as a widespread trade language in the Mopti region and beyond, the Songhay languages along the Niger, the Dogon languages of Pays Dogon or “Dogon country” in central Mali, 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.

Language descriptions[edit]

Most of the languages of Mali are among the Mande languages, which is generally accepted as a branch of Niger–Congo, Africa's largest language family. Non-Mande 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 divergent 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[edit]

Languages of Mali (2009)[5]
Languages percent

The following table gives a summary of the 63 spoken languages reported by Ethnologue (there are also 3 sign languages): Mali Population:

21.9 million
Language (Ethnologue) Cluster Language family Legal status L1 speakers in Mali* L2 speakers in Mali** Main region
French Indo-European official 9,000 1,110,000 Only urban
Hassaniya Arabic Arabic Afro-Asiatic: Semitic National 106,000 ? NW
Bambara, Bamanankan Manding Mande National 4,000,000 10,000,000 All
Bomu Niger–Congo / Gur National 102,000 ? SE
Bozo, Tiéyaxo Bozo Mande National 118,000 ? Central
Dogon, Toro So Dogon National 50,000 ? Central-east
Fulfulde, Maasina Fula Niger–Congo / Senegambian National 1,000,000 ? (some L2 speakers) Central
Maninkakan, Kita Manding Mande National 434,000 ? W
Senoufo, Mamara (Miniyanka) Senufo Niger–Congo National 738,000 ? S
Senoufo, Syenara Senufo Niger–Congo National 155,000 ? S
Songhay, Koyraboro Senni Songhay (Southern) National 430,000 ? (a trade language) N
Soninke (& Marka/Maraka) Mande National 1,280,000 ? NW
Tamasheq Tamashek Afro-Asiatic / Berber National 250,000 ? N
Xaasongaxango, Khassonke Manding Mande National 700,000 ? NW
Bankagooma Mande None? 6,000 ? S
Bobo Madaré, Northern Mande None? 18,400 ? SE
Bozo, Hainyaxo Bozo Mande None? 30,000 ? Central
Bozo, Jenaama Bozo Mande None? 197,000 ? Central
Bozo, Tièma Cièwè Bozo Mande None? 2,500 ? Central
Bangerime Dogon? None? 2,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Ampari Dogon None? 5,200 ? Central-east
Dogon, Ana Tinga Dogon None? 500 ? Central-east
Dogon, Bankan Tey Dogon None? 1,320 ? Central-east
Dogon, Ben Tey Dogon None? 3,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Bondum Dom Dogon None? 24,700 ? Central-east
Dogon, Bunoge Dogon None? 1,000 ? 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? 19,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Nanga Dama Dogon None? 3,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Tebul Ure Dogon None? 3,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Tene Kan Dogon None? 127,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Tiranige Diga Dogon None? 4,200 ? Central-east
Dogon, Tommo So Dogon None? 60,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Tomo Kan Dogon None? 133,000 ? Central-east
Dogon, Toro Tegu Dogon None? 2,900 ? Central-east
Dogon, Yanda Dom Dogon None? 2,000 ? 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? 50,000 278,000 SE, all?
Kagoro Manding Mande None? 15,000 ? W
Konabéré Mande None? 25,000 ? SE
Koromfé Niger–Congo / Gur None? 6,000 ? SE
Maninkakan, Eastern Manding Mande None? 390,000 ? SW
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? 2,500 ? SE
Senoufo, Shempire Senufo Niger–Congo None? 14,800 ? SE
Senoufo, Sìcìté Senufo Niger–Congo None? 3,000 ? SE
Senoufo, Supyire Senufo Niger–Congo None? 350,000 ? S
Songhay, Humburi Senni Songhay (Southern) None? 15,000 ? N
Songhay, Koyra Chiini Songhay (Southern) None? 200,000 ? N
Tadaksahak Songhay (Northern) None? 100,000 ? N
Tamajaq Tamashek Afro-Asiatic / Berber None? 190,000 ? N
Tondi Songway Kiini Songhay (Southern) None? 3,000 ? N
Zarmaci Songhay (Southern) None? 1,700 ? NE
* First language / mother tongue speakers. Figures from Ethnologue.
** Second or additional language speakers. It is difficult to get accurate figures for this category.

Language Policies & Planning[edit]


French is the official language. According to the Loi 96-049 of 1996 thirteen indigenous languages are recognised by the government as national languages: Bamanankan, Bomu, Bozo, Dɔgɔsɔ, Fulfulde, Hassaniya Arabic, Mamara, Maninkakan, Soninke, Soŋoy, Syenara, Tamasheq, Xaasongaxanŋo.[6][7] This superseded the Decree 159 PG-RM of 19 July 1982 (Article 1).


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. Activists are also teaching literacy to speakers of Manding languages (Bambara, Malinke, Maninkakan, Dyula) in the standardized N'Ko form.[8]


  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 : (last updated 11 February 2005)
  3. ^, cites: Johnstone (1993)
  4. ^ Anne Lafage (1993), p. 219, citing Perrot: 1985 for both 1974 and 1984 figures.
  5. ^ "Africa :: MALI". CIA The World Factbook.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Loi 96-049 Portant modalités de promotion des langues nationales
  8. ^ Donaldson, Coleman (1 March 2019). "Linguistic and Civic Refinement in the N'ko Movement of Manding-Speaking West Africa". Signs and Society. 7 (2): 156–185, 181. doi:10.1086/702554. ISSN 2326-4489.