Gambia: Language And Literacy - Tools of Repression Or Freedom?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 13 13:50:19 UTC 2007

*Language And Literacy - Tools of Repression Or Freedom?*

*The Daily Observer* (Banjul)
10 June 2007
Posted to the web 11 June 2007

By Demba Ceesay

>>From time immemorial, the world has never been free from competing
ideologies. Some of the most recent ones even ignited wars that were,
fortunately, never fought - the Cold War. There is the green revolution
debate that has brought academics, ecologists, conservationists and
producers at loggerheads over biodiversity. Then, came the globalisation
debate which centres on the spread of western forms of production and
consumption and their accompanying contestations across of the world. Indeed
over the years, the world has witnessed many ideological debates. And now,
coming closer to the lives of the people, the language debate has also
erupted with all sorts of protagonists having untold number of cases for
their side of the debate. While in the past, events in one part of the world
could not have possibly affected some other areas as a result of limited
means of information dissemination, in the new world order, this is no
longer so.

Economies have been linked by the powers of free marketisation and
international trade; migration is taking place at an unprecedented fashion;
education systems have been synchronised by incessant policy borrowing and
lifestyles are increasingly becoming homogenous with every country and
people eager to take their share of the gains of a globalised world. In such
a pluralist society, more and more people are insisting on having a say in
issues that affect their lives. In this new dispensation, the question of
who wields power is often asked. Related to power are ownership, voice and
access to information. The axis of all these parameters in a modern world is
undoubtedly language. In this exposition, I intend to discuss how language
defines power, and how it serves as a tool of repression and freedom. I will
also discuss how language, particularly a familiar language can help bring
out the authentic voice among the voiceless. Also important to add is the
role of language and literacy in the development of a participatory and
genuine democratic culture.

To begin with, let us assert that language and literacy work in a mutually
re-enforcing manner and fundamentally combine to enrich cultures and confer
freedom on people that access them. This is because together, language and
literacy provide powerful means through which cultural hegemony can be
planted and re-organised in order to secure the social relations of the
emergent socio-cultural and political milieu of a highly interconnected
world. This socio-cultural and political environment is a multicultural
society with multiplicity of languages. Notwithstanding the multilingual
nature of the modern era, the language debate has now polarised the world
into European languages (especially English!) on one side and non-western
languages on the other, hence the importance of the language and literacy
awareness. In this so-called global village of ours, information has become
top priority in all spheres of life and the more people are informed, the
more they become active participants in development. And since information
has to be communicated through a language, language acquisition and literacy
has the potential of either involving or excluding people and whole
communities in the development paradigm.

In discussing how language confers freedom, especially in the context of the
developing world, it is instructive to start the argument from colonialism
because the later gives hindsight on how language was used both as a tool of
subjugation and later as weapon of liberation. Also, the origin of the
current debate on national and official languages, language rights and the
choice of medium of instruction in our school systems could all be rooted
from colonialism. Colonialism was indeed facilitated by the use of foreign
languages (e.g., the colonial education insisted on the undiluted use of
foreign languages) to enable effective control of colonies. Colonialism
therefore witnessed both political and economic domination, as well as
linguistic imperialism. It also forcefully created countries with people of
different linguistic backgrounds together (e.g., Sudan, Nigeria, and
Mauritania just to name a few) as well as separated people of linguistic
similarity (Senegal and Gambia, Nigeria and Cameroon, India and Pakistan,
Algeria and Morocco etc). In doing so, colonialism chose for the people what
language they have to learn in school.

The choice of colonial language policies was meant for educating a
population to be both producers and consumers of the numerous goods of the
empire as well as continuously making them subservient to the colonial
overlords. By this, the source of genuine knowledge was taken away from the
people as English, French, Portuguese and Spanish (just to name a few)
continued to enjoy the hegemony they never deserved.

Through this, local languages were despised together with all their related
virtues. School systems embraced the new language whole-heartedly. If
children, even by mistake, uttered a few words in their mother tongues, they
were beaten, mocked and sometimes suspended from schools. Otherwise, they
are made to wear awkward symbols of shame. The colonial language reigned
supreme at the expense of indigenous languages. The emergent elite group
after colonialism was left with no option but to try to grasp the new
language in order to fit in the new setting. As Ngugi wa Thiongo stated in
the case of English speaking Kenya, "English was the official vehicle and
the magic formula to colonial elitedom." School policies that exalted the
language of the invader while despising that of the indigenes persisted long
after independence. This is because the colonial language was associated
with success and people who were proficient in it were revered as saints and

Ironically though, and since language is the property of anybody who
acquires it, and since it is not neutral, the colonial language, once used
to suppress people to submission, would soon be turned upside down and be
used against continued domination. At struggle for independence, the
nationalists turned the colonial language on its head and used it as a
counter-discourse. For instance, in the entire colonised world, the
nationalist movement used the newly acquired language to appropriate the
discourse of Modernism and Enlightenment, Liberalism and Liberty and
European Nationalism taught by the colonialist in their own schools. How
powerful language can be! Eminent Sri Lankan teacher and writer, Suresh
Canagarajah, in his article, "Negotiating Ideologies through English"
illustrates the shrewd nature of the counter-discourse use of language for
freedom thus:

This is a strategy of reinterpretation - i.e., providing new meaning for
dominant discourses to suit one's own interests and ideologies. It was hard
for the colonizers to resist this argument as the natives were repeating the
discourses they themselves cherished. What was this "new meaning"? The right
to independence is like to right to life, one would be tempted to answer?
And did the counter-discourse strategy work? Yes, because the rhetorics
appealed to the sentiments of personal dignity that were used to conquer the
colonies. Country and after country, the independence movements used the
colonial language to wage ideological warfare, proving new meaning to the
dominant discourses in pursuit of freedom, which over time, was achieved. So
from a colonial perspective, language which once subjugated people now
conferred freedom on them at independence.

However, in terms of modern era and indeed looking at the seemingly
permanent damage colonialism has done to linguistic pluralism across the
globe, one is tempted to ask: how much freedom is available to people for
the use of language, particularly their own languages for the realisation of
real freedom and effective participation in the new world order? How
language does bring about self- definition and development. First, let us
argue that the modern world is faced with decline of languages, especially
in the developing countries. The impact of colonialism and the emergence of
globalisation that is giving supremacy to western languages (English in
particular) are weighing heavily on national language policies. At
independence, most developing countries were faced with the dilemma of a
language choice: whether to develop local language policies or to continue
using the imperial language; more still, whether to have monolingual or
multilingual policies. In places like Tanzania, at independence, Kiswahili
was used to replace English. Malaysia also once replaced the colonial
language with Bahasa Malaysia, otherwise called the Malay. In these and few
other countries, a familiar language (the language of the locals!) was seen
as the carrier of culture and symbol of societal re-orientation. It was also
seen as a variable though which the new state can define itself and unite
its population under a new identity. Even in a more complex modern
nation-state, language is certainly a means of self-expression and countries
that want to forge forward in development must first resolve the language
issue within the population. Countries that want to effect meaningful change
must first work to put language issue at the centre. This is because
language affects people's consciousness, alters situations as well as raises
and changes awareness.

In a culturally plural society, the people can only participate in
development if they have a stake in issues around them, and there is no
further place to look for people's voice other than a language they can
express themselves in. The power imbalance that is characteristic of the
globalised world is largely caused by the minority groups having monopoly of
a dominant language. This dominant language, which is usually the official
language, is the language of politics, commerce and information. And because
majority of the people cannot function in it, they find it hard to function
meaningfully within the state apparatus. So we have a situation in many
developing countries where the majority of the people are left out of the
development agenda just because they have no access to the required tool,
the tool that is called language. And just as to add salt to the wound,
indigenous languages are gradually, and indeed painfully, disappearing at an
unprecedented rate, thanks to the continued dominance of European languages.

>>From a historical point of view, the dominance of European languages has
always been a threat to indigenous languages which are sidelined when it
comes to education, despite a series of national clamouring about the
significant role of local language. Research reveals that less than 10% of
the world's 6000 to 7000 languages are used in schools as media of
instruction and mass literacy. In Australia, only 20 of the 200 Aboriginal
languages found are now in use. In Alaska (USA), only 2 out of the 18
languages found by the British are now alive. Generally, 50% of the world's
languages are at the brink of extinction. Where languages are not written
(as in the case of most of Africa!), they are more likely to disappear. Even
in The Gambia, if one were to conduct a thorough research, one would
discover staggering details of how certain dialects, if not languages, are
disappearing. For instance, I cannot recall how many times, I have heard
people suggesting the Bianunka language is fast disappearing in The Gambia
as the language group is irresistibly being submerged into other Manding
speaking languages and dialects. The lack of viable literacy campaigns in
many parts of the developing world, the continued use of foreign language as
medium of instruction in schools and commerce, combined with serious
negligence of local languages is speeding up the extinction of indigenous

Research also reveals that somewhere in the world, one language dies every
two weeks (which is roughly 25 every year!). And if the trend continues, it
is estimated that only 10% of the world's languages will survive the 21st

In Africa, indigenous languages being driven into oblivion at an alarming
rate. And when they go, they do so with a whole lot of riches, identities
and voices. So we can imagine that anytime a language dies, a whole library
is buried with it. This is precisely the reason it should be duty bound upon
all governments and education systems to re-affirm the need for mass
literacy in all languages at their disposal in a bid to re-distribute power.
But how dose language and literacy distribute power?

*by Demba Ceesay*

*Gambia College*
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