The survival of African Languages: An Analysis

By George King, 2016

There is no doubt that numerous languages within sub-Saharan Africa are under threat of extinction. The indigenous language Aasax, Tanzania, since 1976 has completely disappeared according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)[1]. Aasax is one of many African indigenous languages staring into the eyes of extinction. Language is a key part of much of Africa’s heritage. Language has important functions within society, a route of communication between government and its citizens, between schools and their pupils, and between generations. Many groups and communities in Africa face the very real threat of losing their basic human ‘right to education’[2]. However, there are efforts from numerous stakeholders; language specialists, educationalists, politicians and organisations aiming to reinvigorate the endangered African languages. Ayo Bamgbose in one of his many lectures on this dilemma identified the predicament by stating: ‘of the 53 countries [in Africa], indigenous African languages are recognized as official languages in only 10 countries’[3]. When focusing on Bamgbose’s quote in conjunction with the UNESCO statistics, it shows that most efforts to enhance many African languages’ status have been futile. However, many scholars see progress, various avenues for governments and communities to enable indigenous language growth within sub-Saharan Africa. Bamgbose is right to illustrate the low status of African languages, but this does not mean all indigenous African languages are on a downward spiral. It is important to evaluate the: historical, linguistic, economic and socio-political factors within language maintenance. One must ask the important questions to discover the legitimacy of Bamgbose’s concerns: Is language maintenance possible? Is multilingualism possible? Does globalization and economic development damage language development? Are the educational systems in Africa sufficient enough to maintain languages status? Is this what the African people want? Once these concerns are questioned, one can evaluate whether Bamgbose’s concerns are valid.

Firstly, the question: Is language maintenance possible? Bamgbose says most attempts at empowering African languages have yielded poor results, however this is not entirely true. Some attempts at language maintenance show promise, and there has been theoretical growth on how to maintain indigenous languages. For minority languages’ status to be enhanced, several factors have to be in place: effective education and bureaucracy, national media, statewide centralized programs, investment and an absence of culturally dominant groups.

Leopold Auburger’s theory of language maintenance emphasized the necessity for a written mode of a minority language to enhance its oral mode. Ausburger accentuates the need for an emotional attachment to the minority language, also, the language has to be spoken within the family, older generations and encourage politicians to speak the minority language. For Bamgbose, it would be difficult to maintain a minority language with such a small population and with national governments showing little interest. However, this is not always the case, the Nama speakers of Mathatlaganyane Ward of Tsabong in Botswana, had a  ‘community of only about 300 speakers in the middle of a mainly Setswana – and Shekgalagadi – speaking area and had managed to maintain the vitality of their language’[4]. Therefore, the Nama speakers prove a small minority language can be maintained with a low population. The Nama speakers used similar methods of language maintenance as Ausburger: family and older generation used the minority language; the community had an emotional attachment to the language.

Bamgbose’s claim that; ‘Efforts made to empower the languages by enhancing their status and extending their use to wider domains have yielded poor or unimpressive results’ is utterly subjective to the African country. In regards to the question ‘Is language maintenance possible?’ One could argue Bamgbose’s is correct with his premise, the Namibian government has implemented numerous language policies, in attempts to maintain their indigenous languages. However, as Herman Batibo identified, most of these policies ‘were seen as merely symbolic’[5]. The Namibian government outlined its Vision 2030[6] project, for a more equal Namibia. However, although education is mentioned, ‘it lacks any mention of language or language policy’[7]. Arguably inequality will never be eradicated unless citizens can read their human rights in a language they understand.

On the other hand, not all countries have poor language policies, and some have made efforts to maintain and ‘empower languages’. An essential factor in increasing the role of a minority African language is to codify the language;: creating dictionaries, writing new levels of grammar and establishing correct pronunciation. As Batibo stated, for a language growth, it must be written to give ‘confidence’ to its speakers[8].

Furthermore, for effective language planning with the aim of increasing African language speakers, governments and stakeholders must increase the minority languages capacity. Increasing language capacity ensures minority languages have value, and are codified, in certain fields, such as: law, science, technology, education, medicine, and commerce. Academics (‘stakeholders’), have to be at the core of all language maintenance projects. Universities usually play an advisory role for governments on how to maintain language status. An example of this would be the Namibian National institute of Education Development, whose aim is to ‘design and develop national school curriculums for pre-primary to grade and evaluate learning support materials’[9]. Only when all the language planning criteria previously mentioned are upheld by the stakeholders and governments will we see an increase in value of African languages. Unfortunately, ‘many African governments are not prepared to spend money on programmes of language documentation as they are not priority areas’[10]. Until governments give more priory to the preservation of African languages, there shall continue to be ‘unimpressive results’.

However, there are signs of progress: Malawi is an example of linguistic equality progress, language planning, and language maintenance. The Malawi stakeholders (multinational organizations, government, and communities) have collectively codified numerous dictionaries for indigenous languages (Chichewa, Chitumbuka and Chiyao) within education. Work carried by out by organizations, especially the ‘I Am Yawo Project’[11] in Malawi, have positively affected the use of minority languages within education and the media. In this context, African languages have a high status, and a functional role within society.

Another example of effective language policy and effective action to create a high status of African language would be Swahili in Tanzania. The Tanzanian government embarked on a campaign to covert the nation to a national language. When Zanzibar and Tanganyika became independent in 1961 (becoming Tanzania in 1963), the majority language was not Swahili; competing against English and Arabic. However, TANU (the independence movement) used policies to reform the Swahili language, because of this the Swahili language was seen as the language of liberation and socialism. Due to what Swahili represented, it became the social and political language (also the primary and adult education language) of Tanzania. Until 2015, English was the language for secondary education universities, technology and higher courts. In 2015, it was announced that English would no longer be the language of any forms of education in Tanzania, proving the growth of Swahili through national identity as a form of language growth. The Tanzanian people’s stubbornness against the imported languages proves that African languages can retain high status. As Julius Nyerere stated: ‘If every Tanzanian had stuck to using his tribal language or if we had tried to make English the official language of Tanzania, I am pretty sure that we would not have created the national unity we currently enjoy’[12]. Therefore, many African languages are preserved by national identity. Within many indigenous African languages one can identify cultural heritage, because of the this, one could argue that the likelihood of the language petering out is very unlikely. Language’s prestige increases its status within communities; therefore not all African languages have a low status. The Swahili language is a great example of heritage within a language.

One concern for upholding the value of African language, is the question: ‘Is multilingualism possible?’ One could argue, yes, because the colonial legacy that exists within Africa shows the burdensome task indigenous languages have against the imported ones. The imported language is used for: commerce, education and administration in many African countries. When colonials were in power, they would often force Africans to communicate in their imported language. Due to the elitism that followed colonialism, many of the leaders of the African states, who usually spoke the imported language already, want to maintain the status quo because it suits them. Policies and practices created by these elites are evident today, with 46 countries within Africa recognizing their imported language as their official one (21 French, 19 English, 5 Portuguese etc). Furthermore, because of the artificial borders created by the colonials, many of the African peoples languages and communities were split into factions. Because of this, languages broke up, and some communities would have several different indigenous languages within them. For example, Cameroon has ‘over 70 cross border languages’[13]. Subsequently, the factions created many bilingual communities, therefore it could be assumed that multilingualism is possible, and that African languages can work alongside imported ones.

However, there are numerous reasons for multilingualism being inefficient. Firstly, many stakeholders believe too many languages can become inefficient; bad for business and communication. It is important that businesses and governments communicate in a similar language to its citizens. Languages are a food chain, at the top is the ‘super-international language English that dominates all the languages in the world, and, at the other end, there are the weakest languages’[14]. Therefore, for multilingualism to function, it must have a utilitarian value, the African languages must prove that they can provide something that will contribute to the pleasure of the majority. Although, in Congo, the Kishaba language had hardly any socio-economic advantage, yet it’s still widely spoken.

Furthermore, does globalization and economic development damage language development? This question is important in reference to ‘attempts by stakeholders to empower language’. Until now it has been argued that in certain situations languages have empowered investment in educational fields and codification etc. However, one could argue the reason for ‘unimpressive results’ in language maintenance in Africa comes down to salience, the African people and their retrospective governments are more inclined towards economic growth than indigenous language growth.

Furthermore, no African language is the language of globalization, most multinational corporations (involved in: trade, technology, communication etc) communicate in English, French, Mandarin etc. For example, South Africa’s reintegration into the global economy was a result of language policy moving towards English in 1994[15]. However, many scholars have argued (such as philosopher Georges Bataille), there is no economic development without human development. Batallie argued; ‘Goods are needed to serve men; services are required to make the lives of men more easeful as well as more fruitful. Political, social, and economic organization is needed to enlarge the freedom and dignity of men. Always we come back to Man – to Liberated Man – as the purpose of activity, the purpose of development.’[16] Thus, development is for human utility, not simply economic development and wealth. Therefore, the notion that language statuses are weak because governments care more about the economy – so Africans can be wealthier and therefore more ‘developed’ is a fallacy. However, there is no doubt that war, drought, debt, and natural disasters can all contribute to African governments low budgets, and therefore lack the capacity to invest in language maintenance.

Another important question is: Are the educational systems in Africa sufficient enough to maintain languages status? If the systems in place cannot teach indigenous African languages, then the language will remain low status. Many stakeholders are concerned with the fact core subjects within most schools in Africa are taught in imported languages, and only the soft subjects (social studies and religion) are in indigenous languages. Without the development of dictionaries, classrooms become very confused. Subsequently, the quality of teaching in many schools, especially in Namibia[17] and Mozambique, is poor. This proves Bamgbose’s argument is valid, and that the concerns of educational stakeholders are also valid.

However, there have been avenues for the empowerment of African languages. International organizations such as UNESCO have advised: ‘children learn best in their mother tongue’[18]. Many African states are taking action once they listened to the concerns of Bamgbose and UNESCO. One nation that has revolutionized its educational structure to raise its language value is Burkina Faso. In 1994 Burkina Faso introduced a primary school system that implemented eight African languages along with French, and the results showed that children taught with African languages achieved results at a 20.86%[19], a higher success rate than pupils taught in only French. Therefore, the advice of UNESO proves that educational standards rise when the indigenous language is more prominent within the educational system, giving indigenous languages more value.

Following on from the educational systems in Africa, one must ask; is the maintenance of low status African languages what the African people want? One could argue that Bamgbose has valid concerns, because of the impossibly uphill battle indigenous languages face and the negative perception towards multilingualism in many parts of Africa. It is undeniable that African languages are populous, 30% of the worlds languages originate from Africa. However, it is correct to assume that too many languages can become inefficient, with no shared language, businesses are unable to communicate with one another. Some Africans believe African languages can unite and divide, and it would be appropriate to remain with an imported language, which will unite.

However, scholars such as Bamgbose, do not believe this to be the case, he believes this notion is a ‘myth’. In most African nations, it is only a minority that speaks the imported languages (this is the case in South Africa, where Zulu is the most spoken language, yet most governance and business communicated in English or Afrikaans, and the mass media communicate in the ‘foreign and colonial languages’[20]). To assume the imported language as the common language is factually inconsistent; only 10-20% of the African population use imported language[21]. Prominent Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o would agree with Bamgbose, for him, imported languages ‘show a system of oppression’[22], and evaluating which language is more efficient is wrong. For Thiong’o there is no hierarchy of power over language, and especially not from English because ‘English is not an African language’[23]. Much of the colonial era, using Africans as second-class citizens, has damaged development for many parts of Africa, and given African languages a low status.

Therefore, it is difficult to know the position of many African stakeholders, if the states leaders are the only ones who are content with the imported language. Similarly, Sue Wright maintains the position that having a colonial language as the main language within African society gives a sense of inferiority to the African people, giving them the identity of a ‘colonial child’[24]. It is impossible to know what every African citizen wants, however, numerous organizations within Africa (CICIBA, EACROTANAL, CELHTO, ICA,and BASE, to name but a few) points towards a rejuvenated level of nationalism coinciding with indigenous languages. The masses of organizations on language maintenance provide an insight into the dissatisfaction many Africans have. It would therefore be valid to assume that many Africans want change; institutionally, sociologically and politically. There are no signs of apathy from the African people, which could have been one of the concerns Bamgbose was indicating.

To conclude, one must look at the answers to the questions raised by the Bamgbose quote. Is language maintenance possible? Yes, with sufficient investment and quality codification of the languages. Nevertheless, as Bamgbose implies, the attempts, by African governments, at maintaining languages have been ineffective, with many policies only for show. Is multilingualism possible? Yes, students have proven to be more successful when taught in bilingual education, also, due to the global economies influence, it seems evident that more and more Africans will become multilingual. Does globalization and economic development damage language development? Most definitely, many governments mention nothing of language development or language planning. Are the educational systems in Africa sufficient enough to maintain languages status? Yes, but, this is subjective to the government’s position on the matter. Is this what the African people want? As long as the inferiority position towards colonialism exists within Africa, it will be difficult to know the preferences of the African people. After reviewing the answers to all the relevant questions, it would be correct to assume that Bamgbose’s statement can be applied to states with disinterested governments. Although, many attempts from nations across Africa have shown impressive results, with indigenous languages used in, governments, education and the media.


For more from George King, visit his Twitter: @LeviticusGKing



[1] UNESCO. ‘Frequently Asked Questions on Endangered Languages. UNESCO: Endangered Languages. Last Modified 2011. Accessed 21/02/2016.

[2] UNESCO. The Right to Education. UNESCO: Education. Last Modified 24/04/2015. Accessed 21/02/2016.

[3] Bamgbose, Ayo. African Languages Today: The Challenge of and Prospects for Empowerment under Globalization. (2011) Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project., document #2561. pg 2

[4] Batibo, Herman A. Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges. Multilingual Matters: UK (2005). pg. 109

[5] ibid pg. 108

[6]  Government of Namibia. Vision 2030 Overview. The Government of Namibia: About Namibia. Last modified: 2004. Accessed 21/02/2016.

[7] Frydman, Jenna. A Critical Analysis of Namibia’s English-Only Language Policy. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. (2011). pg. 178

[8] Batibo, Herman A. Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges. Multilingual Matters: UK (2005). pg. 119

[9] Republic of Namibia. National Institute for Educational Development. Republic of Namibia: Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture. Last Modified: 2016. Accessed 15/03/2016.

[10] Batibo, Herman A. Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges. Multilingual Matters: UK (2005). pg. 120

[11] The I Am Yawo Project. About this Site. Last Modified 2015. Accessed: 23/02/2016.

[12] Laitin, David D. Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. (1992) pg. 92

[13] Bamgbose, Ayo. African Languages Today: The Challenge of and Prospects for Empowerment under Globalization. (2011) Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project., document #2561. pg 2

[14] Batibo, Herman A. Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges. Multilingual Matters: UK (2005). pg. 107

[15] Silva, Penny. South African English: Oppressor or Liberator? MAVEN 97, Vaxjo. (1997) pg.2

[16] Bamgbose, Ayo. African Languages Today: The Challenge of and Prospects for Empowerment under Globalization. (2011) Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project., document #2561. pg. 4

[17]Denver, Kisting. Namibia’s language policy is ‘poisoning’ its children. The Guardian. Published: 10/ 01/2012. Assessed: 10/03/2016.


[19] Wright, Sue. Language Policy and Language Planning.. Hampshire: Palgrave. (2004). pg. 10

[20] Salawu, Abiodun. A political economy of sub-Saharan African language press: the case of Nigeria and South Africa, Review of African Political Economy. 42:144, (2015) DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2014.988695. pg. 301

[21] Bamgbose, Ayo. African Languages Today: The Challenge of and Prospects for Empowerment under Globalization. (2011) Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project., document #2561. pg. 2

[22] YouTube. Extract from HardTalk (BBC): Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: English is not an African language. Uploaded 22/07/2013. Accessed: 10/03/2016.

[23] ibid

[24] Wright, Sue. Language Policy and Language Planning.. Hampshire: Palgrave. (2004). pg. 72


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