Politics of language

CAPE TOWN.  For the last four days, I’ve been listening to a group of scholars from nine African nations talk about the language situation in their respective countries.  One immediately realizes that this continent has been robbed not only of its past but also of its soul.

In country after country, the official language is invariably that of the former colonial master.  The people have kept their mother tongues, but these languages, if they are not dying, have not grown.  To be an educated African today means to go through a painful process of cutting oneself off from the culture of one’s ancestors in exchange for a chance at personal success.

Freshly emancipated from apartheid rule in 1994, South Africa, the continent’s richest nation authorized eleven languages to serve as the official languages of the country. Yet, English and Afrikaans have remained the language of government.  The post-apartheid government had a bias for English because it was after all the language of the African National Congress.  Afrikaans was the language that the Dutch settlers brought with them into the country in the 17th century.  In the 1960s, it was refined into a racialized language of the white minority. But, as history would have it, the oppressed colored people also quickly acquired it.

Among the so-called “colored” people – who were neither black nor white — were the Cape Malays.  These were the descendants of the slaves that the Dutch took from the islands comprising present-day Indonesia.   They didn’t quite speak like their masters, but they spawned their own versions of the oppressor’s language. The latest census reveals the startling fact that in South Africa today, there are more non-whites who speak Afrikaans than whites.  To banish Afrikaans would have meant burying the language of these equally oppressed people.

English is very much the language of power, wealth, and social mobility in the African continent today.  Of the nine African countries represented in the Cape Town meeting, only Benin, the former French colony, has not adopted English as the principal medium of instruction and of government.  Not only is English very much regarded as the language of modernity, it is also ironically made to work as a language of national unification in societies deeply fragmented by tribal and ethnic differences.

The most striking example of this linguistic chaos is Cameroon.  This nation of 16 million people has 268 languages.  Within a 20-kilometer radius live people who literally do not understand one another.  The colonizers attempted to bring them under the dominion of one language.  The Germans who first colonized the country made German the official language.  Then the French and the British took over and created French Cameroon and British Cameroon.  When the country was reunified, it became politically expedient to adopt English and French as the official languages instead of choosing one from any of the native languages.

In Zimbabwe, the people speak any of 18 indigenous languages.  The most dominant of these is Shona, which is spoken by 80% of the population.  Yet the official language is English.  It is also the sole medium of instruction from grade 4 to college.  The mother tongue, used in the early grades, is taught as a subject in a curriculum dominated by English.

The teaching of the early grades in the mother tongue is a policy that was adopted in many of the former colonies after it was conclusively shown that children learned basic concepts faster when they were taught in the home language.  But many African countries are rethinking this policy.  Ghana decided to completely junk it after the government was told that students from private schools who were taught exclusively in English fared better in the higher grades. Wherever one goes in Africa, parents demand to know why they should continue sending their children to school if all the education they got was in the language of the illiterate.

The disparagement of local languages is very common in societies that have not recovered from the colonial syndrome.  In Malawi, the crazy US-educated dictator who ruled the country for more than 30 years, Dr. Hastings Banda, never spoke in any of the languages of his country.  He was obsessed with English, and loved to mesmerize his people by his command of what he clearly regarded as a superior language.

In Uganda, a nation of 24 million people divided into 56 tribes, there are 3 major native languages, but, again, no single unifying language. English, spoken by about 30% of the people, is the official language. It is the medium of instruction from nursery till university.  The native language Luganda is taught as a subject at all levels.

The African scholars who came to the meeting believed that this situation should not be allowed to continue.  They would not suffer seeing African children belittle their own mother tongues.  Such a generation would grow without any commitment to the nation.  When they graduate, they aspire to leave their country as quickly as possible.

Tanzania was the object of envy of everybody.  Because of the foresight of the late President Julius Nyerere, Swahili has become a sophisticated language.  He ordered the preparation of dictionaries and word lists, realizing its potential as a pan-African language.  After Tanzania acquired its independence in 1961, Swahili replaced English as official and national language.  Today it is the Americans who are learning Swahili.

Tanzania remains poor, but its soul is intact. It is a stable country that has overcome its internal conflicts.


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