Linguistic decolonisation African languages still disadvantaged

US First Lady Melania Trump, alongside Maureen Masi, Head Teacher of Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe, Malawi, observes children learning the English and Chichewa languages
Do we have our own language? | Photo (detail): Andrea Hanks UPI Photo © picture alliance/Newscom

In 1997, an intergovernmental conference on language policies in Africa, supported by UNESCO, was held in Harare, Zimbabwe to among other things, define the framework for the establishment of national languages in African countries. During the said conference 51 out of 54 African countries attended. Unfortunately not many African countries can talk of having a national language.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. One seemingly common reason often cited by those in power and those responsible for crafting their countries’ language policies revolves around the issue of Africa’s multiplicity of languages. There are over 2500 languages in Africa today and establishing a framework for national languages is a tall order, so they reason.  It is noteworthy that a few African countries have succeeded in choosing and implementing one national language. These include Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Somalia, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi, Lesotho, and Eswatini formerly Swaziland.


On the other hand other African countries have opted for the recognition of more than one national language. These countries are: Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and DR Congo to mention but a few.  However, even if a language or a number of languages are recognised and declared as national or co-official languages of the State, these are often still eclipsed by colonial languages which seem to be deeply entrenched in the system. For example, Botswana recognises English and Setswana as official languages but most street signs and government notices are in English. Similarly, Tanzania which is lauded as a beacon of hope when it comes to the promotion of an African language (Kiswahili) is often criticised for using English in areas where Kiswahili can also be employed. For example, English is used as a medium of instruction at Universities and as a language of foreign relations while Kiswahili could also be used as such.

Another reason often advanced by African language policy-makers is the cost involved in developing orthographies for such languages, instead African governments opt for the use of colonial languages because they are already developed and are easy to implement in all aspects of governance.

Lack of incentives in African languages?

Regrettably, African people’s negative attitudes towards their own languages also plays a role in the marginalisation of indigenous languages. It is generally accepted by many Africans that there are no economic incentives linked to learning and mastering indigenous languages. Parents, including those from low income brackets, will advocate for their children to be taught in colonial languages instead of indigenous ones because of the economic benefits and prestige associated with the former. It is this general attitude towards African languages that often makes it difficult for some states to fully establish legal and policy frameworks aimed at elevating African languages to the same level as their European counterparts. In African countries such as Angola and the Ivory Coast it is not unusual to find locals who were born and raised in Africa and have never been to Europe but can only speak Portuguese and French respectively and claim to have no knowledge of any local indigenous dialects. This is a clear manifestation of the effects of European colonialism on the psyche of some Africans.

No political goodwill

Many African governments continue to marginalise their own languages because of what is referred to as “elite closure”.  Scotton (2010) defines elite closure as a “linguistic divergence created as a result of using a language which is only known to or preferred by the elite, in this case English. This divergence may be purposeful, as a measure of control”.  Forcing the common people to use a colonial language that they have not mastered well is one way of limiting the masses from accessing state resources. 

Young Togolese learn the German language at the school in Palime (Togo), named after the German Africa researcher Dr. Gustav Nachtigal Young Togolese learn the German language at the school in Palime (Togo), named after the German Africa researcher Dr. Gustav Nachtigal | Photo (detail): Roland Witschel © dpa-Bildarchiv

As alluded to above, lack of collective will from Africa’s leaders to promote African languages remains a big stumbling block for the revitalisation of these languages. Besides the Harare Declaration on the establishment of national language policies in Africa, several other conferences have been held and initiatives have been devised to this effect. The Asmara Declaration of 2000 on African languages as well as the Conference on language-in-education, Juba, South Sudan, 2012 all emphasized the importance of using African languages in all aspects of governance, including as media of instruction in higher education but nothing fruitful came from these initiatives. Blame should also be apportioned to regional bodies that fail to promote indigenous languages. It was only when the former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano delivered a speech in an indigenous African language albeit not his native tongue, i.e. Kiswahili, that the African Union declared all African languages official. So far this declaration is on paper only. Ever since Chissano’s speech no African leader has delivered a speech in his or her native tongue at any of the AU sessions since the announcement. How does one take African languages seriously if African leaders themselves are ashamed of promoting them?

The only way to elevate the status of Africa’s indigenous languages is to establish language regulating bodies that will monitor the use of indigenous languages in government and the private sector. This task can be given to either universities or independent institutions established by government such as South Africa’s pan-African Languages Board. Furthermore, In order to destigmatise African languages politicians, local entertainers and artists should speak them from time to time.


Another pertinent issue within the pan Africanism discourse relates to the decolonisation of African political and social institutions. Centuries of European colonialism have resulted in many Africans feeling lesser of themselves and having less confidence in everything African including their languages and culture. The continuous use of colonial languages and the prestige attached to them in African institutions is an indicator of this anomaly.  One reason advanced by the elite is that African languages lack the terminology, say to be used in courts, or they lack the scientific and technological terms to be used in schools. However, conventional wisdom dictates that no language is inherently embodied with scientific, technological, political and legal terms. The English language itself is known to extensively borrow its scientific, technological, political and legal terms from Latin, Greek and French.

Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia and to an extent Rwanda are among the only few African states that use indigenous languages in their respective parliaments. This is a clear example of decolonising African parliaments.  Parliamentary debates in indigenous languages are beneficial to the common man and woman on the street as they will grasp the message from their elected representatives with ease. 

There is fear in some quarters that many African languages might become extinct in less than 100 years.  However, according to several linguists, principally Salikoko Mufwene - a notable Bantu languages linguist, contrary to popular sentiments, European languages are not a threat to African languages, instead it is African languages which are a threat to other African languages. For example Kiswahili is a threat to hundreds of local languages in East Africa, so is Setswana in Botswana.

Interview with Christian Harris during the "Museum Conversations" 2019 in Namibia: