Like Senegal, French is used in Mali as the primary written language, the language of instruction, the language of administration, and the common language between Malians that don’t speak the same local language. In Bamako, the local language is Bambara. Bambara speakers are the largest language group in Mali. It is the mother tongue of Pusso and Momo. Aïseta Baradji, our Director of Curriculum, and also a Malian national, is a native speaker of Soninké. She can get by with a minimum level of Bambara in Bamako but when she really wants to be understood she will speak French.
A difference between Senegal and Wolof and Mali and Bambara is that one occasionally sees Bambara written. Bambara has its own writing system, based on the latin alphabet with the addition of a few letters for sounds that cannot be approximated with latin letters. There is not much written material in Bambara, but I have seen books in that language. There is something of a movement to increase the usage of written Bambara and to use Bambara as a language of instruction in the schools. One of the founders of iNERDE, Abdramane Diabaté, attended one of the first bilingual Bambara-French schools in Mali.
I feel that there is a slight difference in the level of adoption and mastery of French between Senegal and Mali. It is more common in Bamako to encounter people with very little French. Dakar may simply be more of a crossroads. It has more of an international profile than Bamako. But I have to think there is another reason; Bambara is simply more valorized in Mali than Wolof in Senegal, as evidenced by its use in writing and instruction. In Bamako I have learned (very badly) a few words of Bambara, in Dakar I felt no motivation to do the same with Wolof.
I may be wrong, but I have sensed from some individual Malians, ambiguous feelings about the French language stemming from the history of French colonialism. As has happened in a few other Francophone countries, I think there are some here that would not be opposed to using, say, English, as a common language. Yet, French is quite entrenched here and it is very useful to give Malians a window into a larger world and a medium for communication both within the country and outside of it. At the same time, I think it is wonderful that Bambara is also promoted as it gives Malians a means of expression of their unique identity without all the cultural assumptions that will be implicit in using French language.
Many years ago I studied Arabic in the United States with a jurist from Eriteria, Berhan AbdulKader, a skilled Arabist who had been trained in Egypt. Berhan also gave me lessons in his native language, Tigrinya, spoken in Eriteria, and Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. I learned the Ethiopian alphabet, developed from a medieval Ethiopic language called Ge’ez. The written language of Ethiopia is the oldest in Africa and one of the oldest written languages in use today in the world. The written language has been the pride of Ethiopia and, of course, a means of transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. Some of the oldest texts from early Christianity were preserved only in old Ethiopic. Today, Ethiopia has emerged as one of the emerging economic powerhouses of Africa. In my opinion, a strong national identity fortified by appreciation and promotion of the national language is one reason for that. I see the same sort of national pride in Mali and I think the relatively high status of the native languages is both a reflection and an impetus to this.
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