The Importance Of Preserving & Reviving African Languages

By Mimi Kalinda

Mimi Kalinda

The subject of preserving African languages is something very close to my heart, especially as I consider myself to be a champion of African narratives, and an impassioned advocate when it comes to supporting the continent’s various heritages. And these heritages are certainly diverse – in terms of languages alone, the continent boasts over 2 000 different ones! This bears testimony to the rich cultural tapestry and history that is Africa.

However, more and more rapidly, we find that that many indigenous languages are being eroded away and being lost to the past. This is due to factors such as urbanization, lack of support of the languages (e.g. by the education system, media, national policies, the speakers of the languages themselves) and other socio-economic factors. African languages are becoming “extinct” at an alarming rate. In 2012, the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) made a disturbing prediction that the Igbo language (which, at the time, had a population of around 25 million speakers), will become extinct by 2025, unless something is done about it. And many other African languages, some with far less indigenous speakers, are suffering a similar fate at this very moment.

A leading reason for the lack of support of many languages is the cost factor. Governments are reluctant to invest in the resources needed, for example, in terms of school curricula and communication activities. This leads to students being taught in languages other than their “mother-tongue” or first language, which clearly puts them at a disadvantage and impedes the learning process. Research has shown that learners absorb content at a far better level when taught in their native home language, and that this improved absorption of knowledge equips them with higher chances of success.

The Value of Preserving African Languages

While there are many debates around the value of preserving African languages, on examination, it is clear that the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. For instance, let’s look at the goals of the continent. Socio-economic and GDP growth are closely linked to the contributions made by the workforce of each country. The current burgeoning youth population are Africa’s future potential workforce. A decade from now, this youth demographic will either be an asset or a burden to the continent, depending on factors such as education and economic impact (either positive or negative) made by them. Arming the youth with the best opportunities for success, for example by offering education and training in their first language, will boost their earning potential and related GDP contributions through better career options.

Its understandable that some may feel that the preservation of African languages is an unrealistic goal given the current financial restraints experienced by many regions. However, we need to look at innovative and practical solutions to overcome these challenges. This could be through private sector investment and partnerships that help finance teacher training, the production of translated courseware and even translation software tools. Policy change and funding allocations are also crucial measures that can assist with these goals, especially when viewed as an investment for the future growth of a country. In fact, some industries, such as the creative industries, recognise the value of preserving heritage and languages, and already have completed and ongoing projects aimed at this goal. Even so, their impact is limited due to a lack of resources and support.

Keeping African Languages Alive 

The same goes for organisations that aim to keep indigenous language alive – their success is dependent on the support they receive. One such literacy movement involved in the preservation and promotion of mother tongue languages is Nal’ibali. As stated by the organisation: “Nal’ibali is built on the simple logic that a well-established culture of reading can be a real game-changer for education in South Africa”. They go on to explain that literacy skills are a strong predictor of future academic success in all subjects, and that we need to value the power of language and cultural relevance in literacy development, especially as it relates to factors such as empowerment, pedagogy, identity and democracy.

It’s time for policy-makers to start moving out of their comfort zones and take cognisance of the costs of not taking swift action. More and more African languages are fading away due to a lack of support, and with it goes the rich heritages that they represent. It’s up to African leaders and decision-makers to provide the right contexts and eco-systems for African youth to rise to the challenge of taking the continent forward and helping Africa realise it’s growth potential. Globally, countries see the benefits of offering education in students’ home languages, so why not in Africa? Its time for us to ask these questions and start developing sustainable and practical solutions to incorporating these languages into our education systems, communication and media networks, business environments and social settings. Or risk losing a fundamental part of Africa’s history, as well as it’s potential for the future.

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