language Limbo

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Mar 21 02:49:31 UTC 2005

Language limbo

By Terry Leonard
Published March 17, 2005

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Along a boulevard lined with flowering acacia
trees, young people in designer clothes and high-heel shoes chatter on
the sidewalk, struggling to be heard over the driving Latin rhythms
spilling from a nightclub.
    Maputo's vibrant night life lets people forget it is the capital of
one of the world's poorest countries. Here you can eat Italian, dance
like a Brazilian and flirt in Portuguese.
    But one thing is in ever-shorter supply and in perhaps even less
demand: Mozambique's indigenous languages, the storehouse of the
accumulated knowledge of generations.
    "Sons no longer speak the language of their fathers ... our culture
is dying," laments Paulo Chihale, director of a project that seeks to
train young Mozambicans in traditional crafts.
    While Mozambique has 23 native languages, the only official one is
Portuguese — a hand-me-down tongue from colonial times that
simultaneously unifies a linguistically diverse country and undermines
the African traditions that help make it unique.
    The United Nations estimates half the world's 6,000 languages will
disappear in less than a century. Roughly a third of those are spoken
in Africa, and about 200 already have fewer than 500 speakers.
Specialists estimate half the world's people now use one of just eight
languages — Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic,
Portuguese and French.
    A U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report on protecting
traditional knowledge argues that beyond a devastating impact on
culture, the death of a language wipes out centuries of know-how in
preserving ecosystems — leading to grave consequences for biodiversity.
    Villagers in Indonesia's Kayan Mentarang national park, for example,
for centuries have practiced a system of forest management called tanah
ulen, or "forbidden land." On a rotating basis, elders declare parcels
of the forest protected, prohibiting hunting and gathering.
    In Maputo, Mr. Chihale looks up from his cluttered desk at MozArte,
a crafts project funded by the United Nations and the Mozambican
government, and complains bitterly about how his country's memory is
fading away.
    "Our culture has a rich oral tradition, oral history, stories told
from one generation to another. But it is an oral literature our kids
will never hear," said Mr. Chihale, who speaks the Chopi language at
    Anthropologists speculate that tribal people whose ancestors have
lived for tens of thousands of years on India's Andaman and Nicobar
islands survived the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe because
of ancient knowledge. They think signs in the wind, the sea and the
flight of birds let the tribes know to get to higher ground before the
waves swept over the shores.
    But finding economic reasons to keep tradition alive can be a
    In Mozambique, cheap foreign imports have destroyed the market for
local crafts beyond what little can be sold to tourists. Horacio Arab,
the son of a basket weaver who learned his father's trade, said he
improved his skills at MozArte, but then abandoned weaving because he
couldn't make a living.
    Mozambican linguist Rafael Shambela says the pressures from
globalization are often too great to resist. To save native languages
and culture will require societies to find ways to cast them with an
inherent value, he argues.
    On a small campus along a dirt road south of Maputo, Mr. Shambela
has joined a government effort to write textbooks and curricula that
will allow public school students to learn in 16 of the country's 23
languages. But the program is limited by Mozambique's poverty.
    "A language is a culture," said Mr. Shambela, who works for
Mozambique's National Institute for the Development of Education. "It
contains the history of a people and all the knowledge they have passed
down for generations."
    The trade-off for settling on Portuguese as a unifying force after
independence in 1975 has been an erosion of the rites and rhythms of
traditional life.
    "From dating to mourning, the rules are becoming less clear," Mr.
Shambela said.


André Cramblit: andre.p.cramblit.86 at is the  
Operations Director Northern California Indian Development Council  
NCIDC ( is a non-profit that meets the development  
needs of American Indians

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