English Africa, French Africa, Portuguese Africa. We are accustomed to using these terms to designate different countries of Africa. Kenya is considered an anglophone country while Mali is universally regarded as francophone. But do these terms accurately describe the reality?

In fact, these terms are misnomers according to Sozinho Francisco Matsinhe, the Executive Secretary of the African Academy of Languages (http://www.acalan.org/). He was speaking at the Action Week for Global Information Sharing conference in November, 2011,  held at the UN Conference Centre/UNECA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“The former colonial languages are spoken by a very small minority elite, not the majority of the people in Africa.”

This elite tends to be educated and located in the urban areas, not the villages where the majority of Africans reside.

In “The status of languages in multilingual societies” William Mackey tells us that some 90% of Africans “have no knowledge of the official language of their country even though it is presumed to be the vehicle of communication between the government and its citizens”. This means that for up to 90% of Africans, language is a barrier. A century after independence, Africa is still a colony, linguistically speaking.

“Though spoken by a small minority confined to urban areas, the former colonial languages are given preferential treatment in all domains, including cyber space, at the expense of the African languages spoken by the vast majority of Africans,” Matsinhe points out.

Gregory Kamwendo of the University of Botswana warns us to be careful of using classifications such as anglophone or francophone Africa.

“If you go out to the villages, you will not see people speaking English or French.”

Yet governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) alike cling to the idea of an Africa that can be divided into English, French and Portuguese-speaking areas. This may partly explain the failure of aid programs so far to make poverty “history”.

“True development can only take place when it is embedded in the languages of the people.”

Development efforts in Africa have long been conducted as if everyone in Africa spoke a European language. Every day, all across Africa, aid is being delivered in the language of the donors, not of the beneficiaries.

In Thange, Kenya, AIDS orphans play in front of a poster that promotes healthy practices. Like the only healthcare manual that sits in the dispensary, the poster is in English, a language the Kamba-speaking villagers barely understand.

“Community-based development won’t happen unless we engage the people in the language they know best. If you go to the rural areas in Africa speaking English, French, Portuguese, you are speaking to yourselves because no one understands you,” says Matsinhe.

11 thoughts on “Everyone in Africa speaks English. Or do they?

  1. Everybody talks about marketing and localization. We all agree that messages should talk to the clients in their language and also within their culture, and yet health care and other forms of humanitarian help are provided in European languages that the recipients don’t understand, and then we reflect sadly on the fact that the “African problem” is not improving in spite of all our efforts.

  2. Well argued. Perhaps the problem is greater still. Most of the potential audience in most African countries is probably illiterate, so a poster or brochure in any language wouldn’t directly reach them. Why is the illiteracy rate so high? In large part, one can argue, precisely because most literacy education isn’t in the native languages of the students, so they are forced to learn a foreign (typically ex-colonial) language just to become literate.

  3. If you wrote this article in Swahili how many people do you think would have read? I think these European languages help. In fact, most Africans, especially those who have ever been to school understand these languages. There is a problem: I don’t think it will be easy for Cameroon, for example, to do business in its 200 native languages when it cannot adequately pay translation in just English and French. Furthermore, most native languages are spoken but not written, this means we should advocate literacy in these languages. The question is: in a world of capitalism, who pays for all knowledge to be translated into these African Languages and to educate Africans to read and write their languages? Will it be cost effective? Solution: Each language group should do their own advocacy and emancipation. Blaming English and the other languages which are so convenient for mass broadcasting of material will solve no problem. In Cameroon, native development committees (NGOs) sponsor and encourage literacy of their languages (though this is often limited to bible translation). Africans, learn your languages, speak and write them and may be, no one will force English on you.

    • You make a wonderful point! I think you are absolutely right about taking responsibility for your own language. As for getting local African languages online in great numbers, only the solution you suggest is going to work: everyone, in vast numbers, contributing a little to get more knowledge online and able to be shared.

      Online sharing of knowledge is going to get easier and easier as more cellphones become Internet-enabled. That’s why I think the time is now to start making sure there is some interesting content once people do get online.

      Stay tuned to hear about our project with Wikipeda to get more content into African languages – we’ll need to crowdsource that if we are to get anything like critical mass. Are you on board?

  4. People in Africa and indigenous peoples of the Americas need to value and love more their own languages, and create standardized forms in order to protect those languages. This is what was done with the Basque language here in Spain, and its situation hasn’t ceased to improve.

    • We are just now starting to see empirical evidence of how important native languages are to identity, confidence and well-being. A recent study from my province in Canada, British Columbia, showed this shocking statistic: native tribes where the indigenous language was no longer spoken had a six-fold higher incidence of suicide. In Canada we used to actively discourage tribal languages, but now, thank goodness, we are starting to reverse that trend.

  5. Pingback: Dying for Lack of Knowledge | on:africa

  6. Pingback: The politics of language: the silent masses are not silent at all | Maneno Matamu

  7. Its strange how literacy is equated to Europeanization; its sad how African civilization is no civilization. Africans themselves now claim colonization, slavery and the imperialistic agendas of their masters is the best thing that has happened to them. So what happened before 500 years ago……

  8. Pingback: I Believe | Lori Thicke

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