The Colonial Environment and African Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 17 13:22:45 UTC 2005

The Language Dialogue: The Colonial Environment and African Languages

Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra)
March 16, 2005
Posted to the web March 16, 2005

By Paa Kwesi Imbeah

A Ghanaian student participating in a 2001 study on secondary education
commented: "I will only take a Ghanaian language to the final examination
if I am unable to offer some other academic subject." Asked why, he
responded: "My parents will not allow that." His father was a doctor; his
mother was a businesswoman and former secondary school teacher.

Colonial education served to produce a small class of bureaucrats needed
to help run the colonial administration. The imposition of taxes on the
general populace payable in the colonial currency made access to the
colonial bureaucracy highly desirable. The ability to pay taxes and
participate in the limited freedoms afforded by colonialism was among the
several benefits of colonial education.

Indeed, learning potentially conferred simultaneously two rewards in many
societies: a personal knowledgeability and an improvement in social
status. Colonial education skewed the incentives of learning significantly
for the African. It shifted the focus of education away from its human
development potential to its prestige function. The Academic Fallacy, that
"education produces a superior caste, irrespective of what knowledge it
imparts and how it is applied," became a view widely held by many

Overemphasis on the prestigious function of education, created a distorted
value system. The colonially initiated education-as-prestige economy
gained support by the wider society. After independence, the colonial
standard was renamed the national standard. In many aspects of African
life, the effects of this distortion were exhibited. State approved
farming schemes and encouraged cash crop farming over traditional food
farming at the expense of local food security. Farming activity itself
became menial and was reserved for the largely uneducated. Grandiloquence
and intentional abstruseness in communication were preferred over clarity.
Titles and other markers of prestige became highly prized and offenders
against the resulting social protocol were duly punished.


Subsequently, the indicators of value became increasingly external.
English language fluency was mistaken for intelligence. The following
quote from an educational report of the time states the most common
manifestation of this trend.

The tragedy of education in Nigeria is that it is still confused in the
greater majority of minds with certificates. - Chapter 25 - Nigeria: A
country-by-country survey of educational development in Africa (1962)

Among other examples, government accountability to its citizenry did not
matter if it enjoyed international goodwill by maintaining the colonial
status quo. Formal education became an avenue for gaining prestige so that
competition for places in higher education translated into competition for


Consequently, the importance of the human development function of
education was largely displaced. The case for local languages, which could
most efficiently perform the human development function of education,
became obsolete as a result of this displacement. Literacy as a human
development tool was made subordinate to literacy for prestige. As this
idea took root, all forms of justifications for it were made up. Chief of
these justifications, which has motivated nearly all forms of language
policy in sub-Saharan Africa, is communication with the international
community. This orientation was a derivative of the orientation towards
export markets in colonial African economies. The international community
for each country most notably consisted of the former colonial power and
other countries which spoke the same language as the respective colonial
power. Human development was valuable because it was acquired in the
colonial power's language and ability became only valuable to "the
national development effort" if acquired in English. Kumasi Magazine, the
Asante king's traditional industrial complex for producing weapons,
thrived, manufacturing mills and engines for local use and repairing Benz
engines, whilst the University of Science and Technology sat a few
kilometers away, studiously ignoring it and trying to reinvent the wheel.
Indeed, civilizing knowledge could only be gained by the thorough study of
English, French or German. Consequently, educational qualification in an
African language became less valuable than qualification in the colonial
language because of the influence imperial countries exerted over Africa
as a result of their science-supported civilizations.

It is important to note that the role of African languages in education
had not always been marginal. Missionary activity in many parts of Africa
long encouraged its use-despite general opposition by the colonial
administration-if even primarily for religious literary purposes. Faced
with the threat of Asante annexation, the Fante Confederation (formed,
1871) made a constitutional provision for national schools as an extension
of the Wesleyan missionary effort in formal education. The schools were
established for "the express purpose of educating and instructing the
scholars as carpenters, masons, sawyers, joiners, smiths, architects,
builders, etc". School instruction was carried out in Fante.

In addition, Africans themselves lived somewhere along the spectrum of
totally subscribing to the demands of this prestige economy or totally
rebelling against it. At the extreme ends of this spectrum, the
"neo-imperialists" and the "neo-colonized" preferred Western material
goods and systems, while the "pan-Africanists" railed against the hegemony
of Westernization.


The advent of colonialism gradually eroded the place of African languages
in African economies by granting the highest prestige value to school
education in colonial languages. Even missionary educational activity,
traditionally affirming of African languages, was brought in line with the
policy objectives of the colonial administration, namely to produce a
bureaucratic class, proficient in the colonial language and capable of
serving the colonial administration as lower-level assistants.

The decline of political colonialism further entrenched the valuation of
colonial languages above African languages. The colonial powers handed
over the reins of power to their Western-educated protgs instead of the
pre-colonial traditional elites in all of newly independent Africa. This
meant the perpetuation of the colonial language policy of using no African
languages at the highest levels of government. This measure sufficiently
excluded the traditional elite, and by extension, the wider population
from whom they derived their legitimacy, from participation in the powers
and privileges of the newly minted African states. Torn between holding on
to power and divesting power in order to encourage mass participation in
government for rapid national development, African state rulers descended
into what Prah describes as a "mood of indecision and the rudderlessness
of language-policy pursuits by the relevant authorities in Africa."

What remained was the distinct advantage of ex-colonial languages over
African languages in many areas of the African economy. With nearly all of
these new states still heavily dependent on economic aid from their
ex-colonial rulers, a similar situation to the colonial environment
existed. Those who, by gaining proficiency in the ex-colonial language,
were able to transact business with the ex-colonial economy and its
agencies, stood to gain substantial material benefits and more
opportunity. The prestige that such material benefits inherently possessed
or could acquire, consequently lent credence to the case against local

In light of this, it became locally rational to make statements like that
of the Ghanaian student anonymously quoted at the beginning. Gradually, it
became common wisdom to acknowledge that African language training offered
no distinct advantage in post-colonial African society that could not be
outclassed by ex-colonial language training.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of The Chronicle.

Copyright  2005 Ghanaian Chronicle. All rights reserved. Distributed by
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