Africa failing to address linguistic imperialism

February 21 was the 18th annual International Mother Language Day. 2018 marks also the 10th anniversary of the United Nations’ International Year of Languages. Last year the Pan South African Language Board, a constitutionally established body tasked with the promotion and development of the 11 official languages of South Africa, declared February the annual language activism month.

Therefore one might expect a high degree of awareness in intellectual, academic and political circles with regard to issues of linguistic plurality and diversity. This, however, is far from the case.

When it comes to Africa, a continent with more than 2,100 indigenous languages, every country harbours on average 40 different African languages. In reality, the range is between less than 10 and more than 500 per country. Language matters, therefore, are of very high significance for Africa.

Linguistic imperialism

More than half a century after independence from colonial rule with its imposition of the language of the colonial master, the education systems in Africa might be expected to reflect this importance. Alas, they don’t. Linguistic imperialism still prevails.

Apart from high fee-paying elitist and often private institutions, public mass education in Africa is failing, producing high numbers of dropouts and class repeaters, not least because of the language issue.

The misery begins at school and continues into university education. In so-called Anglophone Africa, students with a background in LOTE (languages other than English) struggle because English is the only medium of instruction.

Whereas education in the mother tongue is the order of the day in so-called developed societies and also serves as a solid basis for the acquisition of foreign languages of global reach, most African learners are deprived of the privilege of being educated in their own language.

From day one of their school career, they are confronted with a medium of instruction which they do not master and which is not the language spoken at home. On top of that, even their teachers very often have only restricted competence in English, due to underperforming teacher training.

It is not surprising therefore that African education systems are facing total collapse because learning does not take place in a language that the learners master. Giving them ‘ever more English’, as was and is frequently demanded, does not help.

Their ‘cognitive academic language proficiency’ (CALP) remains rudimentary as opposed to their better developed ‘basic interpersonal communicative skills’ (BICS). Poor teaching practices in an unfamiliar language lead to rote learning without comprehension. However, whenever teaching happens in the mother tongue, it is successful, including the learning of a foreign language.

Sociolinguistic research has shown that a minimum of six to eight years of professional language education under optimal conditions is rarely enough to acquire sufficient competency in a foreign language to be effectively taught through this new language.

The primary and secondary cycle do not provide enough time, particularly given the poor conditions of schooling across most parts of Africa, for African learners to achieve the necessary level of foreign language proficiency. Therefore, European (ex-colonial) languages should be disqualified as a medium of instruction in pre-tertiary cycles.

Educated in English, French or Portuguese only, African school leavers and graduates are often not as linguistically and cognitively capable as their international peers, who have benefited from mother-tongue based education and professional foreign language teaching throughout their education. There are, of course, notable exceptions.

The response of universities

What are universities, particularly in Africa, doing about this? The answer is: Hardly anything, given a few exceptions.

The responsibility of universities should be a double one:
  • • To engage in theoretical and applied research into the societal and economic ramifications of historically received multilingualism (these are the domains of socio- and applied linguistics).

  • • To engage in the intellectualisation of African languages by using them, on a daily academic basis, in the ‘high’ communication domains of medicine, science, philosophy, law and all other educational content matter.
Some universities do address the first responsibility, but practically all fail to adequately address the second. They fail mainly because of the lack of bilingual and trilingual lecturers and professors who would be able and willing to teach by ‘translanguaging’, that is, by resorting to all linguistic repertoires available to them and their students, including African languages.

Exceptionally, a few universities allow masters and PhD theses to be written in African languages; usually this remains limited to language subjects in the domains of linguistics, philology and literature.

Reasons for non-compliance with, for instance, the stipulations on multilingualism in a country’s Constitution and-or enabling legislation in Africa are manifold. Among them are the following:
  • • A lack of political will on the part of governments in order not to strain political, economic and military relations with the former colonial powers by questioning persisting linguistic imperialism;
  • • An adherence to European conceptions of homogenous ‘nation states’ based on a one country, one nation, one language philosophy, which automatically leads to exclusively monolingual strategies in education, fuelled by fear of particularism (‘tribalism’) and secessionism;
  • • A reactionary ideology, driven by fear of the unknown, that is, a ‘status quo maintenance syndrome’ serving exclusively the elite in power, who fear losing their privileges through social change;
  • • Social Darwinist and racist preconceptions about the ostensible ‘superiority’ of European and ‘inferiority’ of indigenous languages, fostering negative language attitudes towards the latter;
  • • Ignorance about the pedagogical benefits of multilingual practices on the part of practically all stakeholders in education, that is, decision-makers, administrators, teachers, parents and learners;
  • • Ignorance and distrust in the intellectualisation potential of African languages through terminology development as part of language planning;
  • • Overestimation of the costs of producing pedagogical materials in hundreds of languages, which simply disregards technological advances in terms of digitalisation, print on demand facilities, etc;
  • • Inability to use and unwillingness to acquire African languages on the part of ‘white’/expatriate lecturers and professors, which is intimately linked to negative language attitudes.

The need for multilingual teachers

The answer to Africa’s need for effective and efficient mass education is multilingual and ‘translanguaging’ classrooms and lecture halls. This presupposes multilingual teachers and university lecturers who are fluent in African and global languages. Until these are available in sufficient numbers, team teaching, ad hoc interpretation and preparation of bilingual teaching materials will help.

Some South African universities have already embarked on a promising path towards truly multilingual teaching and research, among them my current host institution, Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, where the vast majority of students have a Xhosa language background. Rhodes University hosts the unique National Research Foundation Chair for Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education.

There are also other universities in the country recognising Sotho, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu and not the least Afrikaans as media of academic discourse and exchange.

Other major African languages are being used, mostly in language and literature courses, elsewhere in Africa as well. These are still exotic flowers in niche areas. Broadening the use of African languages for higher education purposes, together with global languages like English, remains a goal for further language activism. February is the month!

H Ekkehard Wolff is emeritus professor of African linguistics, Leipzig University, Germany. He currently holds a Hugh le May Fellowship by Rhodes University’s faculty of humanities, school of languages and literatures, South Africa. For broader discussion of the issues raised, cf Wolff, H Ekkehard: Language and Development in Africa: Perceptions, ideologies and challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xvi+358pp.