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Opinion - Will most African languages survive in future?

2021-10-22  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Will most African languages survive in future?
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African languages are estimated to be 2 000 in total. They mainly belong to four language families, namely: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo and Khoisan. Of the 2 000 languages, only a few (mostly the popular ones) are available online for learning and translation purposes. Among them are: Swahili, Amharic, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Zulu, Shona and Arabic – to mention a few. 

In addition, none of them is used as a medium of instruction throughout the school system – that’s to say from elementary level to the tertiary level. This has been a concern for long now; it needs to be addressed.   

It’s evident that the preservation of languages depends on their publication – both manual and electronic. However, most of the African languages are primarily oral, with little available in written form. As a consequence, this has brought many of them under extinction. 

Moving forward, it is fact that most African languages are only used as a medium of instruction in schools within the elementary cycle, and not throughout the school system for various reasons, such as colonialist legacy and morphological reasons. Basically, Africans are learning foreign languages in foreign contexts. As a consequence, those who fail to master those foreign languages used as a medium of instruction have been excluded from formal education. But remember, they also have the right to education, which, as a result, goes unaccomplished.  

Most African countries have been proposing to use their native languages as a medium of instruction, but it never materialised due to the fact that there is a lack of or non-existence of scientific words in their languages. This gap came to the fore because science is not part of African culture. 

This is the same as in non-African languages such as English and French that most of the things that happen and actions done in African culture do not have terms in those languages; for example, ‘omukaga’,  simply because they do not experience it in their cultures. The information above clearly indicates that language and culture are linked, as it’s often said that “Language is culture”.   

It is a concern that few African languages are available online for learning and translation purposes, and there is a lack of or inexistence of scientific words in African languages. Every year, there are graduates from local and international universities in the fields of information technology and education. This seems to suggest that most African scholars in the aforementioned fields are just consumers of knowledge, rather than being problem-solving oriented.      

Nothing is easy; everything requires hard work and dedication. In my personal point of view, I understand that speaking does not guarantee the preservation of languages; only documentation – mainly electronic documentation, because it is life-long, compared to manual documentation that gets old within a short period. 

In addition, as a linguist scholar with an interest in African languages, I believe the need for scientific words in the African language is not a permanent obstacle; hence, this gap can be filled by borrowing words from the communities whose languages and culture are associated with science, such as Asian, Australian and European languages. 

This is possible – just as we have words of things and actions such as “tractors, bread, keys, books, buy and sell” in our vernacular languages that we do not even think that are loanwords in our languages because they have completely lost their sense of origin. But, remember, there are no such things and actions in African culture. 

The borrowing of words can be done through the following methods, as stated by Uushona (2019): phonological adaptation process (vowel substitution, glide epenthesis, resyllabification and consonant addition), phonological processes in handling consonants (consonant substitution, consonant nasalisation and devoicing), a phonological process in handling consonant clusters (vowel insertion, consonant deletion, extra-syllabic consonant truncation and consonant cluster tolerance), phonological free variation, loan words (prefixation, substitution and insertion) – and lastly, verbal extensions in loanwords.

In conclusion, the documentation of African languages digitally will help Africans to preserve their language for future references. Additionally, the loaning of scientific words in African languages will turn Africa into a knowledgeable continent, because learning in native languages is proved to be more effective. Furthermore, these languages can only survive in future if African scholars in the field of IT and education put the points mentioned above into practice. We should never forget that language is power.  

2021-10-22  Staff Reporter

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