Tongue Tied


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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

By Oyenike Adeosun

LAGOS—In her song “One Kilometer, One Language,” Nigerian pop star Evi Edna Ogholi captures Africa’s linguistic complexity. In pidgin English, she raps, “One kilometer means another language, half a kilometer means another language … na which one we go speak?” According to a 2010 UNESCO report, the number of indigenous languages in Africa ranges from 1,000 to 2,500. After the 19th century scramble for Africa, colonial governments also overlaid three other languages—the English that became dominant in West and East Africa, the French of West and Central Africa, and the Portuguese spoken mainly in southern Africa.

Post-independence Africa is still tied to these languages. Though there have been calls for the promotion of indigenous languages, the reality on the ground may force African countries to rethink their language policy, and by implication, their entire economic, social, and cultural environment.

As the world becomes increasingly connected, Africa cannot afford to be left out of growing trade networks. To take advantage of this globalization, Africa should not remain a continent of discrete, often conflicting languages, but rather move toward a single, universal language that fosters international trade and reduces regional conflict. The paramount question of linguistic loyalty is really which of these languages holds a better future for Africa—French, Portuguese, or English.

In many African nations, language fragmentation creates communication barriers that lead to misunderstandings, even violence. While African states had long existed in the form of empires and nations—Mali, Dahomey, Oyo, Songhai, among others—colonization respected few of the pre-existing national, ethnic, or linguistic boundaries. Colonial powers formed new national borders, creating nations with multiple languages and fragmenting tribes among these different newly formed nations. The 11 million Malinkes, for instance, are found in Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, while the Yorubas, with 30 to 50 million people and an overwhelming presence in Nigeria, are also found in Ghana and Benin.

Colonists organized people of diverse nationalities, for which language was of key importance, into strange constructs, creating conflicts in their day-to-day interactions. This scenario of division and dispersal—of customs, blood, and especially language—helps explain why sub-Saharan Africa is riddled with ethnic clashes, political crises, and economic instability. The Arab and non-Arab Sudanese clashes in Darfur and the 2008 anti-Kikuyu post-election violence in Kenya were all ethnically and, to a degree, linguistically motivated. For every African, language is not only a source of individual identity but also the basis for social, cultural, economic, educational, and political life. Linguistic loyalties often override all other social and political affiliations. 


Even within a single country, the language variation can be remarkable. Today, there are some 410 languages in Nigeria, 200 in Zaire, 185 in Cameroon, and 58 in Benin. While Africa takes pride in its rich cultural diversity, the economic implications of this Tower of Babel are daunting. As a result, African governments are saddled with the challenge of integrating their diverse populations into a cohesive community with a common sense of national unity, as in the popular Nigerian development motto “unity in diversity.”

One way of promoting this unity is through language choice, and with many indigenous languages facing extinction, it’s clear which choices people are making. Through most of Africa, English, Portuguese, and French have elbowed aside ancestral tongues, inserting themselves into every sphere of African life—education, business, law, politics, and technology. Across the continent, the idea persists that these international languages are the best means for upward economic and social mobility. Economic requirements drive linguistic choices. In the battle between African indigenous languages and an official foreign language, linguistic diversity has often led to underdevelopment and economic contraction, while economic growth is helped by a move toward a single, dominant language.

Though the goals of the colonial powers varied, the results were similar. The French aimed for an ultimate union with France through policies of assimilation and systematic attempts to eliminate indigenous culture. French became the language of choice—used in schools, government affairs, business, and media—while measures were put in place to discourage the use of the vernacular. Britain, by contrast, accepted the principle of indirect rule and to some extent, promoted the use of local languages as the medium of instruction in schools. Both systems ultimately led—after various pressures, often including armed insurrection—to self-government and independence. Even after independence, colonial languages remained entrenched in many countries, especially at the governmental level, an implicit recognition that the language of colonization remains the language of power. Yet colonial languages have spread unevenly to rural and impoverished areas, creating a linguistic divide that mirrors the current wealth gap.

Unwilling to discard the linguistic, cultural, and psychological importance of indigenous languages while trying to become internationally relevant, a number of countries have promoted linguistic pluralism. While this is the reality of contemporary Africa, it often leaves citizens confused. In Nigeria, in addition to the recognition of English as the official language of government and business, 15 other languages are promoted as national tongues. State recognition is even given to French as a second official language, a curious policy in a nation long-ruled by the British Empire. This, of course, does not take into account the widely spoken pidgin English or Arabic, an accepted language of religion that’s often used in madrasa schools in northern Nigeria.

Wherever an African country finds itself—Anglophone, Lusophone (Portuguese), or Francophone—millions of citizens struggle to master the colonial language. In most cases, the first contact an African has with the official language is in school, and by the nature of Africa’s education policy, most children start school at age six, when they are already well grounded in their mother tongue. Teachers are expected to instruct in a language that may be as unfamiliar to them as it is to the children. Consequently, both teachers and students in African classrooms face serious communication and learning problems. The problem of literacy is not due to the imposition of a foreign language; it’s the incomplete acceptance of that tongue.


While the competition between French and English in Africa began with colonialism, globalization has further intensified the battle for the continent’s common language. In West Africa, France colonized nine of 16 states, and through its legacy of assimilation and a host of neocolonial instruments and mechanisms, relations with its former colonies have remained strong. Through the Francophone community, France has managed to maintain privileged economic access to its former colonies through a combination of political, economic, and cultural measures. Paris even has a direct say in the internal political and economic affairs of many of its former colonies. In addition to maintaining a strong military presence in most of these states, France has involved itself in these nations’ economies through a common currency, the CFA Franc, which is guaranteed by the French treasury.

To ensure this relationship continues, increased resources are devoted to maintaining the dominant role of French in several African countries. Until the 20th century, French had a global dominance as sweeping as English today. In Africa, French remains an official language in 29 countries, most of which are members of Internationale de la Francophonie. A report in 2007 by this club of former French colonies suggests that some 115 million people across 31 African nations speak French as either a first or second language, which may have provoked President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comment at the 2010 French-Africa Summit in Nice, that the “future of French is Africa.”

Some critical questions surround the competition between French and English, especially in West Africa where Francophone and Anglophone nations exist—in more or less harmony—side-by-side. Among the 16 nations of West Africa, five are clearly Anglophone (Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Liberia, with its historical links to the United States), two are Portuguese-speaking (Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde), and nine are Francophone (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and Togo). Of course, Anglophone influence pervades South and East Africa—Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, and much of South Africa.

Accepting a particular language is associated with certain economic advantages. The Nigerian linguist Efurosibina Emmanuel Adegbija suggests that an attitude toward a language is motivated by its ability to raise an individual’s status, its function within the nation, the numerical strength of those who speak it, and its use in government or commerce. In short, the perception of a useful language depends on the quality of life derived from its use, which in turn is measurable by such indicators as income, school attendance and literacy rates, infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy, and general political stability. These indicators differ substantially between Anglophone and Francophone Africa.


Nigeria, a predominantly English-speaking nation once known as the “giant of Africa,” has crumbled under the weight of corrupt leadership by a succession of insensitive governments with little accountability to those they rule. Apart from Ghana, which is beginning to demonstrate signs of positive development, in other West African countries, prospects are grim. Reports from Gambia and Sierra Leone show a prevalence of disease (especially malaria and HIV/AIDS), low literacy, low school attendance rates, and high infant and child mortality rates. The combined average life expectancy of the Anglophone countries is 53 years, while more than 70 percent of the population in each of these countries lives on less than $1 per day.

In Francophone Africa, however, the picture is even more dismal. Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea, Benin, and Mauritania rank among the bottom 25 of 183 nations in literacy, while also demonstrating serious disparities in gender education. Indeed, with a 26.2 percent literacy rate, Mali is the world’s single most illiterate nation, followed by Niger and Burkina Faso—each at 28.7 percent.  These countries also have unemployment rates above 30 percent, low wages, shortages of professional and technical personnel, elevated drop-out rates from school, gross infrastructural  deficiencies, malnutrition, disease, and a heavy dependence on international funding. In 2009, UNICEF rated Mali and Burkina Faso as the sixth and seventh least developed nations in the world. Others (Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Togo) fare slightly better but have a heavy dependence on the service economy, overcrowded capital cities, widespread slums, and widening disparities between the urban rich and rural poor. The 2011 Human Development Index ranking puts all of these Francophone countries at the bottom of the list.

Of special concern is Francophone Africa’s abysmally low literacy rates. In the cases of Mali and Burkina Faso, their ministries of education report that 65 percent of sixth graders annually fail the achievement tests administered in French, even though most of them have had six to eight years of instruction in French. Despite their governments’ best efforts, it’s a number that has hardly changed since 1965. The reality is that the language policies in Mali and Burkina Faso have kept 80 percent of the populace from fully competing in the international arena. In most cases, rural children have little access to French outside the classroom, so they perform poorly and cannot graduate to higher education and therefore have a difficult time tapping into the global marketplace.

While Anglophone Africa fares slightly better here, there is still cause for concern. For instance, in Nigeria, because of a complicated language policy, the ability to read multiple languages is emphasized. Children are expected to learn and be literate in three to five languages, depending on their special circumstances—English as the official language, French as a second official language, and a major Nigerian language at a minimum. If students come from a linguistic minority, however, the language of their immediate community is added, and if they’re Muslim, Arabic literacy is also compulsory.

Oluwole Iyiola, a ninth grade student in Lagos, considers himself lucky that he has to cope with only three languages—English, Yoruba (his mother tongue), and French—in a school curriculum of 13 subjects. Still, he looks forward to the next grade where he will have the option of discontinuing French classes. Since he intends to seek a college degree in the United States, he needs to be more serious with his English than any other language.

This scenario is common across most African countries where either French or English is the official language, but not the mother tongue. In Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, five national languages—Wolof, Lingala, Kikango, Ciluba, and Swahili—are in permanent competition with French. As a result, much of the Francophone African elite consume knowledge produced elsewhere in a language unknown to the vast majority of their countries’ populations. In ostensibly Francophone Mali and Burkina Faso, barely 20 percent of the population speaks French.


The rationale for maintaining French in schools in Francophone Africa is to promote social mobility for the next generation while assuring continued economic support for education from Paris. Though French is unavoidable in the day-to-day life of some Africans—in administration, markets, justice, politics, education, news, and cinema—the language actually spoken by Africans has such extreme regional variations as to render it indecipherable to native speakers from France. With its own grammatical rules and compressed metaphors taken from various African languages, “Français Populaire Africain” is increasingly popular in the urban areas of Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Dakar, Cotonou, and Lome. However, even in these determinedly Francophone nations, a working knowledge of international and far less corrupted English has become a requirement in a number of occupations.

Although Portuguese is not quite as widespread as French, it is the dominant language in several nations. Countries like Angola are doubling down on Portuguese in hopes of tapping into Brazil’s economic boom. The current 13 to 16 million Portuguese speakers in Africa are projected by UNESCO to increase to 83 million by 2050. This still pales before the 600 million African French speakers projected for 2050, but it shows the power of Brazilian foreign aid, trade, and media to steer people back to their original national language. With Brazil’s ascent, hard-to-understand creole dialects are on the decline as Lusophone Africa picks up a more international standard Portuguese.

English—the language of international commerce and politics in most countries—has found a toehold throughout Africa. English boasts cultural resources (literature, media, films, advertising, and music) that are attractive to people all over the world, especially youths. Ramatoulaye Ndiaga, an English teacher in Senegal, underscores the importance of this language in her local context. Not only is English a core part of the school curriculum, she says, but Senegalese often hire private English teachers with a strong command of the language. The imperatives of globalization have moved the tide substantially in favor of English, especially among the urban privileged of Africa.

Economic and technological aid from the United States has also made English more attractive, especially in former French colonies. Indeed, as economics replaces politics as the driving force in national and international affairs, language choice in Africa has devolved largely into a question of money. Reinforcing this perspective is the overwhelming presence of the United States in every sphere of development in Africa—bilateral trade agreements, multilateral agency support, direct intervention in security, governance, infrastructure, environmental development, agriculture, natural resource management, health, rural and girls’ education, and other humanitarian assistance projects. Both the Peace Corps and the Africa Growth Opportunity Act initiative operate in English.

After many years, these projects are gradually tilting the scale toward English as Africa’s dominant language, leaving French and Portuguese in the backwater. All three languages will continue growing in absolute terms as Africa’s population increases, but English is expanding the most in terms of overall proportion of total speakers.

Rwanda recently began a move to English as the primary language of instruction in schools, and there are indications Burundi may soon do the same. Among Africa’s youth and its elite class, English has become essential. In Senegal, knowledge of English is required for any private sector job. Senegalese singer Aissatou Dialo, who sings in English, explains, “English will be the most predominant language through the so-called global culture … or universal culture.”

The stakes of language choice in sub-Saharan Africa are becoming ever higher, as regional political integration and economic cooperation become increasingly important priorities. Effective cooperation among East, West, and South African countries suggests that language choices have a big role to play in unity or division.

Such issues are linked closely to economic indexes. Many of the world’s poorest nations are also the most linguistically diverse. In terms of language choice, individuals and countries that trade must develop a common means of communication. It is imperative that choices are made and that governments take the hard steps to move into an increasingly monolingual world.

Economics and language may not always be in lockstep, but one tends to follow the other, as specialization increases and boundaries become increasingly porous. Rwanda’s recent switch of its official language from French to English created a more stable economy. It is all a self-fulfilling prophecy—one that governments must encourage if Africa is to emerge into the global world as a serious player. As one language increases in popularity, its communication value increases, resulting in higher incentives to learn it. This new reality favors English, but whatever the choice, governments must take a stand and choose a single, national language sooner rather than later.



Oyenike Adeosun holds a Ph.D. from the University of Ibadan, has served as a columnist for the newspaper Saturday Punch, and is on the faculty of Education of the University of Lagos. She has served as visiting researcher at the Center for the Study of International Cooperation in Education at Japan’s Hiroshima University.

[Illustration by Meehyun Nam-Thompson]

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