Mother Tongues: How Language can Challenge Economic Dominance in Africa

By Clara Tipper

Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, European dialects dominate African official languages. As of 2022, English remains the official or second language in twenty-seven out of fifty-four African countries. Of the 300 million French speakers worldwide, around 45% are from Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa combined. This has led some young intellectuals in Africa to question the power of language and its role within the global economy. 

Annabel Naa Odarley Lankai, a Swahili student from Ghana, proclaimed that, “it’s high time we move from the coloniser’s language.” Despite its origins in East Africa, Swahili is spoken in Mozambique, Somalia, and even some places in the Middle East. A resurgence in its popularity saw the African Union incorporating Swahili as one of its official languages, and it is already the official language of the East African Community. African linguists have asserted that there is a strong ideological element at play; reintroducing Swahili would have empowering effects on the identity of many Africans. The association of modernity with the English or French language is indicative of the stubborn residue of nineteenth and twentieth century European colonialism, and, to many Africans, they have become languages of suppression and domination. Although English and French were not enforced by colonial governments, they became dominant within governments, financial establishments, and educational institutions. This led to the ‘vernacularisation’ of what were once official and primary languages of the colonised regions of Africa. Moreover, the implementation of colonial tongues created false borders between countries or regions that were previously united by similar cultures and dialects

Despite Swahili’s endurance through the colonial and late modern period, economic growth poses the biggest threat to language extinction. Although minority languages are most at risk in developed countries, such as indigenous dialects in North America and north Australia, globalisation poses a danger to all non-dominant languages. For lots of East Africans, Swahili is a cornerstone of African identity and culture; in Tanzania, the language played a crucial role in the ideological fight for independence, and is now one of few countries in the continent with an African tongue as its official language. However, as the modern world becomes increasingly globalised, the advantages of learning dominant languages, such as English or Mandarin, are rapidly expanding. For many, fluency in such languages can boost job prospects and education opportunities. On the flip side, those from poorer and rural backgrounds are restricted by the unavailability of opportunities to learn English, or other international languages. As a consequence, they are generally discouraged from attending university, or even secondary school, as the language suddenly switches from the home language to English. African communities would certainly benefit from investing in their mother tongues, such as Swahili in Tanzania, as this will eliminate barriers to education for those in more disadvantaged positions.  

Fortunately, steps are being taken by various African educational institutions to prevent the loss of such symbolic and meaningful languages. In 2018, South Africa’s education minister, Angie Motshekga, announced that Swahili would become an approved second language offered at all schools in the country. Botswana followed suit, and several other African countries are considering similar policies. Elsewhere in the world, Swahili has also gained prominence. In December 2021, UNESCO introduced a national Swahili, or Kiswahili, language day on the seventh of July, making it the first African dialect to be recognised and honoured by the United Nations. The historically black university in Washington D.C, Howard University, has also introduced Swahili classes as an option for their students. In 2014, the number of Swahili speakers was at its historical peak, largely thanks to these fundamental frameworks that are keeping the language in circulation.

Despite these efforts, there is also concern that the use of African indigenous languages, such as Swahili, may not contribute to the economies of these countries. In many cases, firms have little choice but to hire bilingual employees. With the expansion of multinational corporations in developing African countries, it is often vital that the workforce speak English.​​ This is also key to accessing and entering new markets. Sadly, due to the absence of most African languages within the global publishing and education sectors, African businesses lack  sufficient translators.  

Of course, as economies expand, the knowledge of international languages is a valuable asset. However, this should not undermine the importance of preserving traditional languages, which often possess a significant cultural value for native speakers. There is, however, a redeeming factor. There is no limit to the number of languages a person can learn. The steps taken by education ministries, such as South Africa, are commendable. Hopefully, the preservation of indigenous African languages can reignite pre-colonial authenticity and reduce unequal barriers to education and the economy. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist. 

Image Source: BBC news

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