Read, Debate: Engage.

Africa’s linguistic revolution

October 29, 2019
topic:Human Rights
tags:#Africa, #human rights, #Germany, #lanu, #language, #linguistic
by:Frank Odenthal
About one third of the world's languages are spoken in Africa. Many see this as an obstacle to the development of the continent. German linguist Ekkehard Wolff has spent many years in Africa researching languages. . He explains why the continent’s multilingualism could be a powerful resource and therefore should be promoted rather than suppressed.

FairPlanet: The diversity of African languages is hardly recognised by many people. Most have heard of Swahili or Zulu before, but nothing more. Can you give us an insight into the linguistic diversity of Africa?

Prof. Wolff: There are about 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, one third of them in Africa, the latest counts give about 2,150. However, figures depend on what is counted as a language: there is no unequivocal definition as to where a ‘dialect’ ends and a ‘language’ begins. With 54 states in Africa, this means that on average there are 40 languages per country. As a matter of fact, African countries are home to between just a few and up to over 500 languages, like in Nigeria.

There are 40-50 languages in Africa that are spread across more than one national territory. Some are spread over two neighbouring countries, others are found in as many as twenty African countries. Swahili, for example, is widespread throughout East Africa, with about 100 million people using it as a Lingua Franca, although as a mother tongue it is spoken only by comparatively few people along the coast and on some islands, such as Zanzibar. In West Africa, there is a big language called Hausa, which we assume to be used by some 80 million people as a Lingua Franca across several countries. But there are also languages that have smaller numbers of people; people whose lifestyles, such as as cattle-farming nomads, makes them widespread across half of the continent, like the Fulbe and their language Fulfulde.

Most African languages, however, have less than 100,000 speakers. Half of them have less than 50,000; this observations mirrors the global situation. Only 4% of all living languages have more than 1 million speakers, in Africa as much as elsewhere. In this regard, European languages are highly exceptional because of their expansion during colonialism.

Some languages are related to each other by common origin, others are not. It‘s more complex in Africa than in Europe where, with only few exceptions, languages belong to just one language family, namely Indo-European. Until a few years ago, we assumed Africa had four major language families. This goes back to a very influential classification of African languages by the late US-linguist Joseph H. Greenberg from the 1950s and 60s. The largest language family is "Niger-Congo", named after the two river basins between and beyond which these languages are spoken, which includes about 1,500 languages, among them hundreds of Bantu languages that cover the southern half of the continent. It is the largest language family worldwide.

Then there is the "Afroasiatic" language family, which has produced about 350 languages, including the Berber languages in North Africa, many languages immediately south of the Sahara and most Ethiopian languages, and also the Semitic languages, including Arabic, which originate from the Near East.

The third group of some 200 languages is named "Nilo-Saharan", these languages are geographically sandwiched between the two other families, reaching from Lake Chad to the Great Lakes in East Africa. The fourth group, named “Khoisan”, of which there are only 20-30 languages left, can no longer be categorised as a single family; it has been split up into 5 groups. Currently, experts debate numbers between 6 and 20 for non-related language families and “isolates” in Africa.

By the way, all human languages worldwide ultimately originate from Africa, because humankind’s cradle was in Africa, and humans already had language when they migrated into other continents.

What about written languages in Africa?

Most African languages were only spoken – until the colonial period. Originally living in small communities, there was no reason to develop a written form, all essential information could be transmitted orally. However, some African peoples eventually lived in circumstances where they felt they needed writing, so they either developed a script or adopted one. African script development begins 5,000 years ago with the hieroglyphics of Pharaonic Egypt and also encompasses the 3,000 years-old Punic script used during the Carthagian Empire, which has survived in the “Tifinagh” script of the Tuareg and is being used as “Neo-Tifinagh” in Morocco today. In Ethiopia, a scriptural tradition developed some 1,600 years ago based on a model from South Arabia that was brought along by immigrants, giving rise to the current Ethiopian script "Fidäl". The oldest major input for writing African languages was the Arabic script since the Middle Ages. More recent local scripts have been developed under the influence of European colonialism and Christian missionaries in the 19th Century with the arrival of the Latin script. Since colonial times, many African languages have undergone basic scripturalisation in Roman letters, certainly all the major African languages now have orthographies and the beginnings of literatures.

Are the constitutions of the countries also written in the original African languages, or are they only available in the languages of the colonial rulers?

Yes and no. In principle, such documents are written in the “official” European languages or in Arabic. In few cases, the constitutions are available in African languages as well. South Africa, for example, has eleven official languages, besides English and Afrikaans they’ve chosen nine Bantu languages, and the Constitution is available in all eleven official languages. In Kenya, Swahili has recently been raised to the rank of an official language besides English. Kenya has had English as “official language” since independence, Swahili is now the “official national language”. Whether the constitution in Kenya has been translated into Swahili, I do not know, but I would assume it has. But for most countries in Africa, the constitution is written only in the languages of the former colonial rulers, i.e. in English, French or Portuguese. And this also applies to the education system, especially for secondary and higher education, the universities: everything is taught and written in non-African languages.

In your recent publications, you use the term "mental decolonisation". What does that mean?

I owe this term to the famous Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who has written an influential book entitled "Decolonising the mind". He regards the imposition of a foreign language as a prime means of colonial subjugation. Other authors speak of "linguistic imperialism". Language is the medium through which knowledge — and thus also power relations and worldviews — are transported. It is through language that we influence the deep content of teaching and learning. In recent sociological discourse, this system of power and knowledge is referred to as "coloniality". It means that our current knowledge system was shaped by 500 years of European colonialism. Power is attached to this, and it carries a value hierarchy: on the upper scales are the “developed” peoples with their “superior” languages and “sophisticated” civilizations (i.e. Europeans/“whites” of the Global North), and on the lower scales are the “underdeveloped” peoples (i.e. “coloureds” and ”blacks” of the Global South) with their “primitive” cultures, who, not the least because of their purportedly “backward” languages, were considered “inferior”, not able to develop their own “modern” worldviews.

This reflects a current discussion that was actually initiated in South America, which was then picked up in Australia, and is now carrying on in South Africa and the entire African continent. Especially in South African universities, “decolonisation” is currently hotly debated. The entire education system, which totally rests on Western thought and knowledge systems, is being questioned. They ask: What about our indigenous knowledge systems? Are experiences from our own cultures worth nothing? Clearly: In universities and secondary schools, their own cultural roots are completely ignored, and so are the languages in which these cultures are best expressed.

So, in educational institutions, especially in higher education, only the languages of the former colonial rulers are being used?

Yes. It goes so far that at a higher educational level, a country like Ethiopia uses English only. Ethiopia is one of two countries in Africa that has never been a colony; it has its own language of power, namely Amharic, through which one can express absolutely everything. It’s a kind of voluntary submission to the assumed a priori superiority of a European language.

In the former French and Portuguese colonies, indigenous languages were never allowed, not even in elementary schools. That was due to the colonial doctrine of assimilation of the colonised populations to become “black French” and “black Portuguese”.

The British had a different approach, which ultimately resulted in apartheid and segregation. They allowed to teach for the first three years in local languages, assuming that this was enough time for the children to learn English well enough to switch the teaching completely to English. This, as experts know, does not work: a minimum of six to eight years is needed to acquire a foreign language good enough for it to be used for teaching and learning purposes.

And that’s how it has remained in Africa until today, with few exceptions, such as Ethiopia, where they allow to teach up to nine years through Ethiopian languages before switching to English.

That sounds like a reasonable approach…

Yes, it sounds good in theory. But when I worked and researched in Ethiopia, I realised that it did not work very well. Even after nine years exposure to English through the medium of an Ethiopian mother tongue, the students' English is still not good enough for higher levels of education, and certainly not for universities. The main reason being the poor quality of the teachers who teach English during primary and early secondary education.

But European universities tend to switch to English, too. Whats wrong with that?

I'm not saying that's wrong; in Europe, all pre-university education is done through a language that is the mother tongue of almost all learners. But for Africa I say it doesn’t work, because already pre-university education is based on teaching through a foreign language. You see, learning in a foreign language is ultimately ineffective, if you do not speak that language very well. African students may be able to have simple conversations in the foreign language, but they are hardly able to acquire academic knowledge via this language. Their language proficiency is just not good enough. Students will memorise texts and reproduce them correctly, without really understanding the content of what they are reproducing. That is the main reason for the overall failure of postcolonial African educational systems. Individual development of cognitive and creative abilities of students can hardly take place under such circumstances, because learning effects remain poor.

The solution is undisputed among professionals: In Africa, we need multilingual education systems in which the major world languages – such as English, French, Arabic, and maybe eventually Chinese – play their part, but as languages to be learned as subjects, not by using them as teaching medium! As a medium, you should always use the language that is best mastered by the learners, and in Africa these are the African mother tongues. Ultimately, which languages to choose has to be decided case by case, from province to province, village to village, sometimes even from school to school.

Unfortunately and most often, teachers, parents and even the learners are trapped in a dilemma. If you ask them whether they want teaching through, for instance, Xhosa or English, they always choose English, hoping that through knowing English one can eventually get a better job and make more money. However, if they were offered education in both languages, including the one they use at home, then exactly that would be the parents’ favourite choice. But that‘s a choice that‘s rarely being offered by educational authorities. What we need are multilingual systems, where teaching is done through both local and global languages.

But the education systems in the countries are not yet prepared for that.

Unfortunately not. One of the problems is that African authorities subscribe to the 19th century European ideology of “one state – one nation – one language”. They believe in the model of “one language for all”, and that this should be the language of the former colonial master, or Arabic.

The second problem is, that the teachers themselves often speak such poor English that they can only communicate on quite a low level with the learners, who usually don’t speak the language at all upon school-entry. Teachers then often resort to a common African language that they share with the learners in order to allow any communication to take place in class. However, the exams will still have to be passed in English, and most children will fail because of their poor English!

And where it comes to teaching through African languages, the teachers would first have to be taught how to teach through them. It’s not enough to be able to speak these languages in order to also teach them. Currently, most teachers are not prepared professionally to teach in African languages at all. All their training is only in English. But that's a language they often cannot handle sufficiently well in class. So, they remain under-prepared to teach in any of the required languages, be it English or an African one.

Are the African languages sufficiently developed to be used at universities?

Absolutely yes! Some languages can be used immediately, others can be fixed with a little bit of time and money. Experts can “upgrade” any language over a period of — I would say — two years to the extent that it can be used as a language of basic instruction in elementary schools. For secondary and university level teaching it takes longer, but it‘s feasible, no doubt about that.

And by the way, shifting the educational system from monolingual to multilingual strategies will cost less than one might think: only an extra of one to two percent of the national education budget!

You have also used the term "translanguaging". What's that about?

You know, in Africa so many languages are spoken side by side, especially in the cities, where people sometimes speak three, four, five or even six local languages. In recent decades and especially among young people, a language-mixing habit has developed, parallel to originally secret languages among juvenile street gangs. Experts call this mixing “translanguage”. Such hybrid speech forms are copied by kids in schools and students and staff in universities; it is becoming very popular among young mainly urban people all over the continent as expression of their lifestyle. As a result, people in the streets today use all their language resources they’ve got to communicate, it is like speaking several languages at the same time. But there is also a political issue involved: Young people deliberately try to Africanise the European languages – and thereby attempt to decolonise themselves.

You propose a Reformation model for Africa based on Martin Luther.

I do see historical parallels. Luther’s Reformation is considered to mark the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era in Europe, which was accompanied by three “revolutions”.

Firstly, the hegemonic dominance of universally accepted powers was challenged by emerging local powers. In Luther’s time this was the hitherto unquestioned authority of the Pope in Rome; in Africa, postcolonial societies challenge the hegemonic dominance of the former colonial masters. Eventually and in the long run, Luther’s Reformation also opened the way towards democratisation from below, like it is happening in Africa right now. In 2015, African students and staff of the University of Cape Town were tired of looking at the monument of Cecil Rhodes on campus, a British imperialist and former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. This resulted in the hashtag #Rhodesmustfall, and at the end of it there also was the hashtag #Zumamustfall, an in the end successful attempt to get rid of their autocratic president Jacob Zuma.

Secondly, political revolutions can be reinforced by technical revolutions. At the time of Luther, Gutenberg’s innovative printing press allowed fast production of the first-ever mass media in the form of pamphlets written in German that were distributed all over and read out to the an-alphabetic masses of the people. Today, we have innovative digital information technology and social media, which allow complete democratisation of access to information. At both periods of time, texts – meaning knowledge and information – were spread faster and cheaper than ever before, creating true democratisation of the media, so to speak.

Thirdly, the parallels also apply to language. At Luther’s time, Latin was the only language that allowed access to higher education, the local vernaculars were considered too primitive for educational purposes. In Africa today, likewise only the ex-colonial languages of European provenance are considered suitable for education, but not the African vernacular languages. This creates elitism and oligarchies, and it disallows quality mass education for democratic control of governments.

In Europe and the North, the Modern Era entailing enormous scientific and economic progress and the rise of democratic rule was linked to mass education through the use of local languages instead of Latin only, which was widely relegated to a teaching subject in grammar schools. This is a promising model to follow also for Africa, namely learn English and other world languages, but do so through African languages that are mastered well by both teachers and learners and through which individual cognitive capabilities are being awakened and enhanced.

Prof. Ekkehard Wolff retired in 2009 from the Chair of African Linguistics (Afrikanistik) at the University of Leipzig, which he had taken in 1994, at that time being Professor of Afrikanistik at the University of Hamburg. Over several years he also taught at universities in Nigeria, Niger, South Africa, Ethiopia and Finland. His research covers descriptive, comparative and applied linguistics and sociolinguistics of African languages. He has published over 25 books, the latest being ‘The Cambridge Handbook of African Linguistics’ (2019), ‘A History of African Linguistics’ (2019), ‘Multilingualism and Intercultural Communication: A South African Perspective’ (2017), ‘Multilingual Education for Africa: Concepts and Practices’ (2016), ‘Language and Development in Africa: Perceptions, Ideologies and Challenges’ (2016), ‘The Lamang Language and Dictionary’ (2 vols, 2015).

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Embed from Getty Images
There are about 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, one third of them in Africa, the latest counts give about 2,150.
Embed from Getty Images
All human languages worldwide ultimately originate from Africa, because humankind’s cradle was in Africa, and humans already had language when they migrated into other continents.
Embed from Getty Images
This is a promising model to follow also for Africa, namely learn English and other world languages, but do so through African languages.
Call to Action
Support The Endangered Languages Project, prevent language endangerment and disparition!
Support now