Linguists cautiously back ‘official’ national languages

African linguists have voiced support, with a need for caution, over a proposal adopted by several African countries to give their national languages the same status as official ‘colonial’ languages such as French and English.

An ‘official’ language is that used in a state’s administration and official services, and as a language of political, cultural and economic cooperation.

Some African countries were already giving their national languages official status alongside so-called ‘colonial’ languages, reported Deutsche Welle. They included Rwanda, South Africa, Lesotho, Madagascar, Burundi and Tanzania.

Mali had also entered the debate, against a backdrop of diplomatic tension with France, reported Deutsche Welle, with the introduction in October of a draft bill which would make Bamanankan (also known as Bambara) an official language alongside French, with some supporters even demanding it should replace French.

Senegalese linguist Seck Mamarame, who works at the linguistics laboratory at UCAD, the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, praised “the promotion and development of national African languages”, reported Deutsche Welle.

“Our national languages, as long as they remain languages of communication within groups, cannot develop and be at the same level as the Western languages. There is this need to promote national languages and make them languages of education, and of commerce,” Deutsche Welle quoted him as saying.

Mamarame said there was “a perception developing in African former French colonies. These want to be separate from the cultural, linguistic, diplomatic and economic influence of France.”

UCAD linguist Professor Abou Diarra said the use of Bamanankan as an official language would not cause a problem, reported Deutsche Welle.

“I believe that, alongside French, we must clearly affirm that the national languages are official languages and that their implementation will be made progressively,” he said.

Bamanakan in Mali

“Bamanakan is the main language of communication in Mali, spoken by 70% to 80% of the population. All those who speak Bamanakan are not necessarily native Bambaras, that’s to say it is not their mother tongue. But it’s because of its dynamism and usefulness as a lingua franca that many people speak this language,” Deutsche Welle reported him as saying.

But other linguists warned that this kind of decision, with political motivations, could create exclusion between different populations in the same country, because language contributed to social integration, reported Deutsche Welle.

Rwandan linguist and writer François-Xavier Gasimba warned that change must not be sudden “vis-à-vis the so-called colonialist languages, rather there must be an attitude of tolerance. If a decision is taken abruptly, there will be a feeling of frustration and exclusion,” Deutsche Welle reported him as saying.

Gasimba gave the example of Rwanda as one of several African countries where national languages coexisted as official languages with French or English.

“Kinyarwanda has been a national language and also an official language for a long time, alongside French, and also English. Recently, Swahili has been added. It’s necessary to work hard for language conviviality,” Deutsche Welle reported him as saying. — Compiled by Jane Marshall.

This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original reports.