Africa is the world’s most linguistically diverse continent. Home to around a seventh of earth’s total population, it also houses one-third of humanity’s languages. These languages certainly aren’t neatly divided by political borders: Africa also has seven of the globe’s ten most linguistically diverse countries. Cameroon alone has over 250 language groups.
Language diversity is under threat across the continent, just as it is in many other places on earth.
A number of factors combine to put minority – and sometimes majority – languages at risk. People are displaced by war or migrate to urban areas, meaning they pick up whatever language is spoken there as a way to move ahead in life.
In many emerging markets, people are moving away from the traditional economy that may previously have been central to their group identity, which included the language of their tribe or region.
Increasingly, Africans are also dropping the languages of old colonial masters (such as German or Dutch) and moving to the languages of new economic partners, such as Mandarin or English.
In rare cases, genocide is even eliminating language groups altogether – such as the sad case of the Kordofanian languages of Sudan. Language groups are in flux for a variety of reasons, and this affects the prospects of the language itself.
Power and influence
Most cases of language loss can broadly be explained by a switch of allegiance: the primary focus of its speaker’s shifts to that of a more powerful and influential group of people. Language loss very often accompanies rapid economic growth.
As a key centre of power, the role of government can be extremely significant to the fate of languages.
Across Africa, governments often aren’t helping combat language loss and in some cases, they are actively encouraging it.
When central and national-level government grows in significance it replaces previous local and tribal loyalties, which may have been linked to language identities. So as governments become more secure and effective, language diversity may decline.
In Africa and many other parts of the world, governments often take the view that the ability to speak a majority language should be encouraged in order to promote civil cohesion and economic participation.
It’s often the case that governments are not championing language diversity but instead leading the drive to language harmonisation.
This is reflected through the websites that governments themselves maintain. Only around a third of African governments have websites that are available in all of the country’s official languages.
Many African countries have several official languages – South Africa has 11. Maintaining a website in 11 different languages would be quite a task for a webmaster!
Surprisingly, it isn’t always the minority languages that are poorly served through official channels. Kenya’s governmental website is not available in Swahili, despite the fact this is the most widely-spoken language in the country.
English is spoken as a first language only by a minority of South Africans, but the government’s website is only available in English.
Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans are all spoken as first languages by a larger proportion of the population. It would be tough to maintain a web presence for all these languages but the tendency for governments to focus on a single language online merely fuels the drive to language harmonization that is a threat to language diversity.
Technological barriers to languages online
Sometimes the practicalities of portraying a language online are particularly challenging. With a general lack of focus on promoting local languages across Africa, there hasn’t always been the necessary technological development that helps move languages online.
Many languages still aren’t supported by web browsers or don’t have system fonts that represent them.
Technology is a big part of the fight to preserve Yorùbá, a west African language spoken by around 30 million people. It’s been difficult to represent the diacritic marks (including subdots and tone marks) above and below Yorùbá letters that enable the language to be represented properly in a digital context.
Sometimes these tone marks are simply omitted when the language is represented digitally, which cuts out many of the important elements of the language.
However, when the diacritics are included it’s harder to retrieve content via search. This is the kind of challenge languages face in the modern world.
In Nigeria, Yorùbá and other local languages are being dropped from school curriculums in favour of global languages such as English and French.
In the future, students of the Yorùbá language may have to travel abroad, to countries such as the US, to study their own native language.
This lack of support at school level is challenging for languages: it often means less literature is produced in the language, the literature that is produced isn’t recognized by awards panels and reviewers, and the orthography often declines when it’s not being supported by language education.
There’s still some hope
Linguistic research in around the year 2000 actually paints a more positive picture of linguistic security in Africa compared to other parts of the world.
Linguist Barbara Grimes named 37 languages that were then at serious risk across the entire African continent – that’s a mere 0.02% of the total. In the Americas, 161 languages were at threat at that time – that’s greater than 1% of the Americas entire linguistic spread.
Seen in this light, Africa’s linguistic diversity is actually in a stronger position compared to other regions of the globe. However, digitalisation and accelerating economic development since the year 2000 will have accelerated the changes identified at the time.
It’s also true that across Africa, unlike other continents of the world, it isn’t always the case that indigenous language speakers are seen as belonging to lower social classes. An Aboriginal language speaker in Oceania might be considered in a lower socio-political class than many other segments of the population, but a speaker of an indigenous language such as Bambara in Mali would be part of a dominant social group.
When a person’s linguistic identity doesn’t support their social standing there’s less incentive to maintain that identity, so the social status of a language is critical to its survival. Some indigenous African languages are therefore in a relatively strong social position compared to indigenous languages in other parts of the world.
It’s also been argued that digital interaction could help preserve languages, so long as they can be rendered into digital typography.
The language people use in social media tends to reflect their normal conversational use of the language, meaning it’s a very natural way to continue using the language.
Separation of language groups into diasporas is a serious threat to their survival.
Giving language groups that are displaced due to economics or unrest the ability to stay in touch with one another online would be one way to keep the language in daily use. Digitalisation could help as well as hinder language survival.