African language policies

After independence, a good number of African countries opted for the colonizer’s idiom as the official language of the nation.

This became also the official language of learning. Tanzania took another direction. At independence, it chose Swahili as the official language and language of learning. In Kenya, where English is the official language and Swahili the national language, the language policy established in 1976 encouraged mother-tongue teaching in primary schools. English, however, is increasingly used as the language of instruction throughout the educational system.

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Swahili is taught as a compulsory subject, so that the promotion of local languages lost ground. It must be recognized that teaching in local languages poses a series of problems. These languages possess little or no technical vocabulary, textbooks are rare and teachers may not be speaking the language as a mother tongue.
For instance, the Kenya Institute of Education has managed to publish only books in 22 of the 54 languages spoken there. Since 2011, all public officers must speak Swahili and all official documents must be available in English and Swahili. Local languages are not taken into consideration.
Last March, Gambia decided to drop English as an official language. However, President Yahya Jammeh has not indicated which language the tiny West African country would use in its place. Gambia’s 1.9 million people speak several African languages including Mandingo, Fula and Wolof, the most widely spoken language of Senegal, its only direct neighbour.

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Since December, French is no longer the only language spoken in the parliament of Senegal but also Wolof, Diola, Malinke, Pular, Sérère or Soninke. Thanks to a new service of simultaneous translation, national languages can also be used in official interventions.
According to Moustapha Niasse, speaker of parliament, the novelty will not affect the central role of the French, which will continue to be used for all written documents. “The national languages – said the speaker – are the basis of our cultural heritage more than the French.”

Urban outlook

It is in the big cities in Africa that African languages evolve more rapidly. There, national (European) languages come into contact with local idioms to give birth to new forms of expression.

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In towns, the local elite schooled in English and French mixes with people of little or no education. The result is a disruption of cultural schemes, which is reflected in their speech. In this way, languages of European origin are moulded into something new, borrowing syntax and vocabulary from other languages. Among the youth, the mixing of languages shows other aspects. Often the youth create a cryptic speech to answer their need for identity and, at times, to conceal what they talk about. These particular speeches evolve rapidly, so that even among the youth there is never a single Creole. A case in point is Sheng. Swahili and English are mixed to create this particular language; a language that changes every few months and is spoken differently from town to town. Words assume particular shades of meaning, which are soon forgotten as new expressions are coined as a reflection of events, media impact, or the whim of an influential personality.

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The descriptions of these languages seem to be crucial to the understanding of urban societies and, more generally, for understanding the emergence of language itself. In addition, these new urban hybrids allow the overcoming of ethnic divisions that are characteristic of African societies and are often factors of conflict and war.
The high rate of immigration of African populations, particularly in Europe or the United States, leads to reflect on the transmission of African languages in the diaspora. For example, Malian immigrants living in Paris suburbs did transmit Bambara through several generations. Yet, the Bambara heard in these neighbourhoods is certainly very different from that spoken in Bamako. The lack of studies on this topic does not allow precise answers to be given about the future of African languages in the diaspora. (N.F.Y)


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