African governments "wish ... small languages [to] die" ?

d_z_o dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Fri Aug 4 14:10:58 UTC 2006

This evaluation and other remarks by Nigerian linguist Ben Elugbe
about language planning in Africa may be of interest. This passage
comes from a paper presented 10 years ago (reference at end), so it
would be interesting to know the author's current take on the
situation. (Cf. also part of a recent interview with Ugandan Pres.
Museveni at )

Don Osborn

The development of African languages is not uniform across the
continent. Some languages have been fortunate, others have not. Some
parts of the same language have been fortunate - others have not. Even
so, it has been the case that large languages (as defined within a
given country) have received attention. By contrast, small (often
called "minority") languages have been less fortunate.

It is probably the wish of African governments in multilingual
countries that the small languages should die. Fortunately, because
these languages have speakers and because their speakers do not always
have literacy in a viable alternative, the rate of extinction is
surprisingly low. Hence the problem of language simply will not disappear.

There are convincing arguments for avoiding the development of African
languages in the multilingual states. First of all, multilanguage
policies are considered expensive (which they are) and disuniting
(which has never been proved). It is also true that investment in
language is not quantifiable in real statistics - unlike investment in
oil production, in wheat production, or in dairy farming, for example.

Yet there are advantages in encouraging the development of African
languages - large and small. These include the fact that the speakers
of such a language develop a sense of political care and belonging.
The speakers are automatically carried into the modern age because new
ideas, modern ideas, can be presented in the language they understand
best. (Note that this point implies that language development goes
beyond the provision of a writing system and readers or primers; it
includes the expansion of the vocabulary of the language to cope with
new ideas.) Education is a major beneficiary as children would be able
to learn - at least for a while - in their mother tongues. There is
thus a major gain for national development. Governments have to look
beyond the immediate to see the gains of policies charitable towards
African languages.

Of course, the problem needs planning, a trait not too often
associated with governments in this part of the world. A country
should have an accurate figure of the number of languages within its
borders and the size of each as defined by speakers and territory. If
it does not (language is an elastic term), it should have a good idea
of the linguistic situation in every part of its territory. Questions
to be answered would include the number of languages; the extent of
each language; the diversity among the languages; the number of
speakers; etc.

Elugbe, Ben. 1998. "Cross-border and Major Languages of Africa." In K.
Legère, ed. Cross-border languages : reports and studies, Regional
Workshop on Cross-Border Languages, National Institute for Educational
Development (NIED), Okahandja, 23-27 September 1996. Windhoek :
Gamsberg Macmillan. (page 24)

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