Preserving Culture
How Colonialism Causes Language Endangerment

A teacher looking at a blackboard that has symbols and letters written on it.
A teacher gives students a lesson on their mother tongue at a school in Foumban, Cameroon. In Cameroon, French and English are official languages. Nonetheless, the use of some Indigenous languages is being fostered in local schools. | Photo (detail): Kepseu © picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency

There are thousands of languages all over the world. But the existence of many is threatened with dwindling numbers of active speakers. How do factors such as colonialism contribute to language endangerment in Africa and elsewhere, even today?

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to over 2,000 languages, which constitute close to 30 percent of the world’s languages.  Most people on the continent speak at least two African languages fluently. While some languages have at least one million speakers, others are spoken by smaller numbers. Most of the languages are orally passed on and cannot be found within the educational system, which would be vital for their growth and survival. A major contributor to this exclusion relates to the colonial strategy of only introducing a small number of languages within the educational system and building an economy driven by the elite with Western education and proficiency in European languages. Colonial management of transition to independence in most African languages entrenched continuity of the spirit and practices of colonialism. This situation has continued even in the postcolonial period with English, French and Portuguese dominating in teaching and learning.

There is now a growing concern that many African languages are endangered, but this is not only an African problem. Globally, close to half of all spoken languages are endangered, and many are on a path of extinction.

Loss of Knowledge

The endangerment of languages ought to be an area of immense concern. When a language dies, it cannot be resuscitated. Resultantly, we have less evidence for understanding the nature of human language itself – its structure, patterns and functions – and the workings of the brain which processes it to facilitate learning. Furthermore, the extinction of any language leads to permanent loss of unique information previously embedded in that language. This is because languages, while serving as mediums of communication, are also carriers of knowledge, philosophies, values and community experiences passed on for generations.

Every language is a window into the unique expressions and interpretations of human experiences. Therefore, the knowledge of any single language may be the key to answering fundamental questions, including how to mitigate climate change.

But what do we mean by language endangerment? A language is said to be endangered when its speakers no longer use it or only use it under very limited circumstances, such as ceremonies, or within the family set up. Speakers of the language might not be passing it over to the next generation and children in the community have minimal contact with it. Over time, this non-transference of language to children leads to a systematic reduction of new speakers. Dominant languages take over by swallowing the weakened ones.

“Even when African languages were used in evangelism, they were always those most dominant locally. Minority groups were encouraged to cede ground and embrace Christianity through the European or the local majority language.”

The endangerment of languages can be viewed hierarchically. According to a UNESCO classification system some languages are vulnerable while others could be definitely endangered, severely endangered or critically endangered. All these levels of language endangerment exist in Africa. For example, in Kenya, there are only 4,000 Yaaku people and only seven of them speak their Indigenous language, Yakunte, as native speakers. It is an endangered language that could die in the next few years. When there are no speakers left, a language is considered extinct. Other endangered languages in Kenya include Boni, Burji, Bong’om, Dahalo, Omotik, Ongamo and Suba, spoken by minority groups.

Hierarchy of Prestige

There are many reasons why a language may be endangered, but most of them are related to unequal relations of power. When a community is pacified militarily by another it may be “commanded” or may opt to surrender itself to the dominating community including by adopting its language and suppressing certain aspects of its identity. Other factors may be related to economic, religious, educational or cultural dominance.

Pragmatically, economic power implies better access to social facilities such as those enjoyed by the elite. It leads to better housing, health facilities and mobility options. The language spoken by a community’s elite is viewed as having higher status and power. Similarly, the main language used in religious teachings such as Arabic or English also influences communities. Christianity in Africa, for example, came with missionaries who spoke English. Even when African languages were used in evangelism, they were always those most dominant locally. Minority groups were encouraged to cede ground and embrace Christianity through the European or the local majority language.

The endangerment may also be due to a community’s own perception of its language compared to other languages and the belief that its language is less valuable because “it seemingly provides no visible benefits” beyond in-group communication and identity. It is estimated that by the end of the 21st century about 90 per cent of the languages worldwide may be replaced by dominant languages globally.

The Impact of Colonialism

The role of colonialism in the endangerment of African languages is quite significant, because the strategy of putting languages in a hierarchy of prestige continues in postcolonial Africa. The linguistic and cultural bases of colonialism were not broken and have gained more salience under the elite unable to shake off the chains of linguistic dominance.

The primary objective of colonialism was to conquer other nations in order to exert power, influence and control of resources. At the centre of the imperial conquest was a set of cultural beliefs, including the superiority of the white race. European values and languages were viewed as more sophisticated and carriers of universal wisdom. The suppression of African languages was enabled by this notion of cultural superiority.

“Language management requires government involvement in provision of infrastructure and funding.”

Having made claims over territories in Africa soon after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Europeans used their military and industrial power to conquer African nations and enforce their political, economic and belief systems. Colonial administrators set up plantations of palm, cotton, sisal, tea and coffee in the colonies. They anchored their own languages and introduced them to key community members and overseers who would function as intermediaries between them and the labourers. In other cases, they elevated languages, such as Swahili in East Africa which had played a historical role as lingua franca during trade or the spread of Islam, or Hausa, Fulfulde, and Mandinka in West Africa which were cross-border languages. Popular books such as the Bible were translated and mechanisms for the standardisation of cross-border languages were put in place. There was very little attention paid to minority languages, as European languages – and selected locally dominant languages – were used in educational institutions and media. Having been made invisible there, minority languages were put on a path of decline.  

Revitalising endangered languages in Sub-Saharan Africa would require support of African linguistics ready to work on them, a facilitation through the formulation of policies and regulations on their promotion, funding for documentation, the development of reading material and dictionaries, a granted presence in the media and in the educational systems allowing the teaching of new speakers. This process ought to be deliberate and consistent. There is some ad hoc work being undertaken by language associations and media to dignify all languages through research, content creation and visibility. However, language management requires government involvement in provision of infrastructure and funding. While I am optimistic that many African languages will thrive, I worry that dominant languages – foreign and local – will overwhelm the vulnerable ones on account of the dwindling number of speakers and their economic marginalisation.