A keen follower of recent news in Africa must have come across the various language issues that have cropped up over the last few years. The language question and how to manage it in Africa is one of the toughest nuts we have to crack.
Dictionary defines language as the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way – a system of communication used by a particular country or community Researchers say that there are over 1000 indigenous languages in Africa. According to Gordon Raymond G. (Ethnologue; the Languages of the World, 1995) there is a total of 2,092 languages spoken in the African continent – this only compares with Asia’s 2,269 dialects. However, Asia’s languages are spoken by 61 per cent of the world’s population as compared to Africa’s which is spoken by only 12 per cent. Europe has 239 languages spoken by 26.3 per cent of the world’s population. It also has the highest number of extinct languages. Africa has the highest per-capita language count. This is significant in development, and here is why.
Division vs unity: Language is not just a carrier of communication. It also carries the culture, values, dreams and aspirations of a people. It is a huge uniting factor in society. To say that it is difficult to unite people who cannot even comprehend one another is an understatement. How else can one explain the incessant tribal conflicts that bedevil the continent?
Communities who do not share a language do not interact much. Lack of interaction gives room to all manner of negativity in thought with regard to neighbours until at some point the neighbouring community is actually seen as horned devils and any small spark, whether it’s due to political or resources competition, is enough to lead to a flare up.
Power: Compare this to the European ‘poverty of languages’. Historically, Europe had fewer languages and more interaction of the people through constant trade conquests from one corner to another (Greek, Persian, Roman and Macedonian empires, etc). The conquerors imposed their languages on the conquered (just like the colonialists left us with their languages). These must have killed a whole range of native languages in Europe and, in some cases, as is the case with Latin, given ‘birth’ to new languages altogether.
More people speaking fewer languages are – other factors kept constant – likely to be more powerful than fewer people speaking a myriad of languages. A look at the United Nations official languages will show one where power lies.
Perhaps the reason the Italians could not colonise Ethiopia is because, among other factors, there were so many people speaking Amharic, a well developed, rich language with its own writing form?
Trade: Africa has the lowest contribution to world trade – at 2 per cent. The devil in all this is that intra-African trade is very negligible. We would rather trade with our colonial masters than trade with our neighbours. Whereas there is neo-colonialist thinking in all this, it is undeniable that one of the factors that fuels all this is the language barrier between neighbours. Uganda might want to trade with the Congo but then the only trade languages they use is English and French, respectively; so it is much easier to trade with Britain and France, respectively.
Most of the times, when we talk of the language factor in most African countries we tend to go ethnocentric and emotional and start talking defensively about cultural erosion and all that. If African unity is to be achieved, Africans must build their own way of comprehending one another. If prosperity is to be attained, then regional trade languages must be encouraged and developed; and if we are to have a say on the world stage we must speak with one voice; quite literally!
For those who read the Holy Bible, you have most probably come across this line:
“And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city….” (Genesis 11:6–8)
The writer is a Project Management and Entrepreneurship Development consultant based in Kigali.