African languages under threat: What is killing African languages?

One may be wondering about the difference between an endangered language and an extinct one. The thing is that there is no difference because they both lead to the same result: extinction. A loss of a language is a loss of a large and unique repertoire of human knowledge. An endangered language usually has its last few speakers and it can be documented; however, an extinct one does not have any speakers left and it is gone forever.

There are about 6000 languages in the world and many of them die everyday. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger database, hundreds of African languages are under threat. The focus in this article will be on two African countries only because it is impossible to cover even 1% of this continent’s endangered languages. In North Africa, Morocco has only few indigenous languages and seven of them are going extinct, leaving the field for Arabic and French to prosper. For example, the inhabitants of Figuig, in the South East of the country, have only between 20000 and 30000 speakers left. The Moroccans who still live in Figuig speak their dialect of Berber, but those who live in big cities are starting to lose it because the second generation does care about learning it. Thus, Figuig’s Berber dialect is one of the seven threatened language varieties in Morocco on the way to extinction.

In Cameroon, there are 36 languages that are endangered. Some of them are already extinct and others have only few speakers who are still alive and most of them are elderly people. The languages that do not exist anymore are Duli, Gey, Nagumi and Ngong. Baldemu had only 3 speakers left in 2003, Bikya and Bishuo had only one last speaker in 1986, Ndai had 5 speakers in 2007, and Njerep had only 4 in 2007. It is possible that some of the last speakers of these endangered languages are dead by now and they took their languages with them as well. For more information on endangered languages, please visit the online UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger database.

Not only linguists, but also ordinary people feel guilty about the extinction of a language. They know very well that they are responsible for that linguistic loss and they are aware, in most cases, that they are not capable of bringing back its soul, especially when it is undocumented. So, what makes a language die?

One of the reasons languages die is that children do not acquire their mother tongues and therefore do not contribute to reproducing them. As a result, as the sizes of their speech communities shrink gradually they ultimately disappear. This neglect of the mother tongue, most often in favor of other languages of high status, is the outcome of perceptions that parents have as- a result of urbanization, uniformity, and assimilation. For example, when a group of rural families move to an urban area, they tend to start believing that social mobility and status can only be achieved by being proficient in the language of the majority. Thus, parents decide not to teach their children their mother tongue because they think this would slow their children’s career paths, hinder their achievement and maintain their status as outsiders. Aiming for assimilation and conformity has its short-term goal, which is success. This also has a long-term effect, which is linguicide.

Worse, some parents have a sentiment of pride regarding this, and try continuously to show off that their children do not speak the mother tongue- as if its knowledge marks their foreheads with a sign of ignorance and failure. This has become prestigious fashion that the upper social class is faithfully practicing in a number of societies. Nonetheless, the blame is on the social, economic and political changes that give power to certain languages over others.

Another reason that pushes languages to die is the lack of change. In order for a language to ensure its survival, it needs to evolve and become flexible according to the needs of speakers. A language needs to equip itself, either by coining new words or by borrowing from other languages, with the vocabulary that will describe the environment around the speakers.

What can be a devastating experience for a linguist who is trying to document a language under a high level of threat is the death of its very last speaker while trying to reach out to him or her. This experience is no different from the experience of a doctor who runs to the operations room to save someone’s life, but seconds make a difference. Another devastating experience is when the last speaker is deaf or does not want to talk in or about the language.

Why is language documentation important? It is important because it makes miracles happen. For example, Hebrew was about to disappear, but the fact that it was documented helped at revitalizing it. Hebrew was only used for religious purposes, as it was the language of the Torah. Eliezer Ben Yehuda taught Hebrew to his son who grew up as the first Hebrew native speaker. Since then people started teaching Hebrew to their children and Hebrew became a language of a nation with thousands of speakers. Another example is the Egyptian hieroglyph. If the Pharaohs did not use language to write about their history, we would never have known about their very advanced civilization and, most probably would not have known how some languages evolved to become what they are today.

We are losing languages everyday and it is our responsibility to teach our mother tongues to our children to maintain a diversified world in terms of language and culture. It is also a must for governments to recognize all the indigenous languages and grant them the right to be preserved.

Bouchra Kachoub

Bouchra Kachoub is an English Instructor at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. She was previously a Lecturer and Foundation Year Program Coordinator at the Superior Institutions for Science and Technology (SIST) in Casablanca, Morocco. She was awarded a scholarship and a teaching assistanship from the Department of Linguistics at Ohio University, where she obtained her Masters degree in Applied Linguistics and previously received the PLUS scholarship through which she earned a Bachelor degree in English Education from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, USA. Her areas of interest lie in a variety of issues including teaching, language learning, language policy, bilingualism, historical linguistics.

6 Responses to African languages under threat: What is killing African languages?

  1. Thank you for this great piece Bouchra! What is your opinion on governments promoting education through home languages as a way in which to preserve them? In addition, what is the place of dialects in the debate? Some languages have several different dialects spoken and at times it is some dialects that become endangered/extinct, as opposed to the language itself…

    • Dear Nadia,

      My opinion on governments promotion of local languages has two folds. The first one is pedagogical: Using the mother-tongue as a medium of instruction, especially for elementary schools, is a great way to help students succeed in school and decrease drop out rates. When students are instructed in their mother tongues, they do not have to struggle with learning the language and the content of the course. My other opinion is geared more towards language policy, which you have mentioned in your question. Teaching home languages in schools with the purpose of preserving them is also another great thing to do, only if it is compulsory for everyone. If all children learn the mother tongue in schools, they will end up appreciating it and also mastering it.

      As far as dialects are concerned, they are of equal value to the standard languages they belong to. For example, I have mentioned in my article above that the Berber dialect spoken in Figuig is also one of the language dialects that is endangered.

  2. thank you Bouchra for this piece. Reading this piece I would swear that you might as well be South African. It is amazing how similar the Moroccan narrative is to our case in South Africa. It is true as you say that part of the problem is with the perception of language as only functional. The assumption that learning a language has no bearing on history, while it is a fact that we bring our subjective memories to all languages, how we learn it is conditioned largely by the history we bring to it. As you put it “when a group of rural families move to an urban area, they tend to start believing that social mobility and status can only be achieved by being proficient in the language of the majority.” This is our story with English at home. After apartheid, a lot of Black families sent their children to English-medium schools where it is forbidden for them to speak their mother-tongue languages. A rational calculated move which makes sense if you treat language only as an economic ahistoric apolitical function in society. It is only now that the government is realizing the danger of this with a suggestion that university students must at least learn one indigenous language at university. It is now that they are realizing that we have a whole generation that cannot appreciate their history, and culture in their own languages as evidence by many events where I have witnessed awkwardly a young child who cannot even communicate with their own grandmother who does not speak English. In the end you have a lot of children who although they can move easily in the middle-class circles, however in their inner-family circles they are very alienated. As well as beyond that actually since the majority of South Africans still do not speak English fluently.

    Beyond that as studies have shown everywhere that children with a better mastery of their own language have a better chance at learning other languages and subjects. In my own case of learning IsiXhosa as a first language in school I always thought my younger brothers who learnt English first language would be better academically than me, but now I see that our failing education system has neither allowed them to master English nor IsiXhosa. In which case they are finding themselves in this awkward space where it is difficult to intellectually and socially enjoy both English and Xhosa.

    It is no wonder of course that Frantz Fanon’s first chapter in Black Skin, White Masks in on language. Even in 1952 Fanon understood how centrally located language is in understanding the consequences of the divided self-perception of the ‘Black Subject’. I suppose like Nadia, I must ask you for a way forward. What must happen next?

  3. Kazi,

    I find everything you mentioned interesting. In fact, you have completed the article with lot of ideas and excellent examples that I have missed. There are many languages that are being banned by authorities. The most stupid case was in Sierra Leone. A school principle punished students who spoke Krio in school and even dared to wash their mouths with soap.

    As for learning the mother tongue first before learning any other languages, I believe it to be a must. Learners cannot achieve a high level of proficiency in a second language without mastering the first language because any second language learning relies a lot on the experience and skills one has on the first language. This is according to the threshold hypothesis that Cummins introduced. I believe your case is a wonderful example for this matter. And indeed, you are enjoying both your experience with Xhosa and English.

  4. I’ve only just come across this article whilst conducting some research. Very interesting discussions indeed. Bouchra, Nadia and Siphokazi, I say let’s take action. After what you discussed in 2011 has any positive change happened? None. The reason is that we are all expecting someone to change things. I know that alone I can’t cause Africa to change. But I have started my small steps. Look at my website to see what I have done with Shona numbers, up to one vigintillion. That way, we can use Shona for teaching science without the unwieldy numbers that we have. I’m keen to use the same website to implement similar number systems for Sotho, Swahili, Zulu, Kikuyu, Yoruba, Bemba and many other languages in Africa. 2011 is a long time ago, but I hope you guys are still as interested as you were in 2011.

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