Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Examining African Languages as Tools for National Development: The Case of Kiswahili

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Examining African Languages as Tools for National Development: The Case of Kiswahili

Article excerpt


A considerable majority of Africa's modern states exists in their current territorial shapes as the result of earlier Western colonial expansion in Africa, and the imposition of boarders on contiguous bodies of land with almost no concern for creating homogenous or coherent populations (Simpson 2008:1). Consequently, a wide range of quite distinct ethnic groups were artificially assembled as the demographic co-constituents of European protectorates and colonies, while other groups were divided by new borders and separated into two or more Western administered territories. After independence, in the second half of the 20th Century, the inheritance of these externally and arbitrary imposed borders consequently led to the sudden emergence of a great number of states with mixed populations with little in common except a shared officially recognized territory. The leadership of these independent states has been very challenging, especially issues of language and cultural integration. How to bring together the diverse ethno-linguistic groups occupying many of the continents new states and create a sense of belonging and loyalty to a collective national whole is a challenge yet to be addressed. Simpson (2008:2) captures the language challenges of Africa accurately when he states that:

"In the general attempt to build stable, integrated new states in heavily multilingual and multiethnic sub-Saharan Africa, language has, not surprisingly, proved to be an important and contested force intimately connected both with citizens' individual access to education, employment and political participation and with the broader growth of a shared sense of national community, and has often given rise to perceptions of multilingualism (in the sense of occurrence of many languages within a single population)as principally negative complication for national development rather than an asset to be exploited".

Multilingualism has therefore been viewed as problem rather than an asset that can be exploited to "unity in diversity". Moreover, scholars and governments in Africa see language policies adopted at the end of colonial rule as the genesis of the good or bad practices observed today. For many African states, important influences on the prominence, extension and functional use of languages in post-colonial times were already established during the experience of colonial occupation, not only as the result of the creation of borders which put together various ethnolinguistic groups as members of future states, but also through specific language related policies and activities (Simpson 2008:2). For instance, in education, usually the kind of education offered to Africans was one to prepare them for blue-collar jobs, and thus the local indigenous languages were used as media of instruction.

Another common approach used by colonial administrators was to provide a minimal amount of western-language medium schooling, sufficient to train up a necessary number of junior-level civil servants with the proficiency in French and English, and to leave any education of the remaining majority of local African populations to the sporadic initiatives of the missionary groups (cf. Simpson 2008). As a consequence, the missionary involvement in education and spread of Christianity resulted in the use of indigenous languages, and thus various languages had to be standardized and formally described. It is during this period that many dictionaries, grammars, orthographies and teaching materials on many African languages were developed and produced. The languages and varieties of languages that were selected and formally developed and promoted acquired a higher status and in many cases became linguae francae and these languages also emphasized ethnic identities that were previously not clearly defined.

The use of African languages in education was not always appreciated because the knowledge of a Western language always resulted in access to better jobs. …

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