The Status of European Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Wakerley, Veronique | Journal of European Studies, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Status of European Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa

Wakerley, Veronique, Journal of European Studies

It would be naive in the extreme to try to divorce current linguistic policy in Africa[1] from the history of the continent. While the world in some ways becomes more and more homogenized, the question of language is one which strikes at the very roots of cultural identity. The continent of Europe, entering its own brave new world of hoped-for financial and political harmony, is extremely unlikely to find itself united by a single language; on the contrary, it seems that the last thing that a people will relinquish is its cultural identity as expressed through its language. |Language is not only the mind of a culture, it is also its most exclusive vehicle.'[2] Historically speaking, the recognition of the importance of language as the means of expression of a society's distinctive self has sometimes led to the attempted suppression of the use of such languages in the colonizing process. Equally, some colonizers recognized the importance of language as a barrier between ethnic groups, and, by their linguistic policies, whether intentionally or not, kept those barriers in place.

The Africa which has emerged in the last thirty years, as each country gained its independence, has had to face huge problems of identity, and one of the key factors in solving these problems has been language. The question is not only a political one, though that has carried considerable weight in the decision-making process, but also a cultural one, latterly much more divorced from political considerations than thirty years ago, and, most importantly, an educational one. The decision in each country regarding the language(s) of instruction has greatly exercised the experts, because of the many variables which influence the decision. Broadly speaking, however, most nations have opted to retain the language of the departing colonial power at some educational level.

Factors affecting the history of foreign[3] language teaching in Africa

Colonial languages have, to a large extent, outlasted those who put them in place. In Africa, this is most obviously true of English, but also of French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. The history of the rise and fall of these languages is closely linked to colonial domination and its demise, but in different ways. English, with which I do not propose to deal at any length, since my study is concentrating on the other languages already mentioned, (excluding Arabic, for reasons mentioned in Note 1) is a special case because of its international status as an unofficial world lingua franca. Nevertheless, all the former colonial powers created a situation whereby each country in Africa, as it attained its independence, was faced with the problem of what status to afford to the languages which were not indigenous to it, but which had nevertheless become, to a greater or lesser extent, a part of the fabric of its society.

The colonizing process, involving allocation of huge areas to specific European powers, began in earnest in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The division of land often bore little relation to ethnic homogeneity, and the new rulers found themselves in a situation of having to create a 'rudimentary infrastructure with a European language one of its essential components'.[4] Only in this way could there be established a successful central administration. However, whereas the British, German and Belgian colonizers made it their policy to acquire at least the rudiments of one or more of the native languages so that they could work with the indigenous peoples in their own language, the French opted to bring the benefits, as they perceived it, of the French language and the civilization it represented to the local population.

The question of what educational opportunities were to be afforded to the local population by the colonizers was a natural concomitant of the language issue. The British policy with regard to the teaching of English in its colonies is well known; primary education was conducted in the vernacular, and only in a relatively small number of schools.

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