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FATE OF AFRICAN LANGUAGES

By: Paliani Gomani Chinguwo[1]

In his article Whither To Local Languages that appeared in the Malawi’s Nation newspaper of 7th January 2008 George Kamba writes, “Most parents and guardians…believe that for their children to be called educated in formal schools they have to speak and write in English…Let us not forget that English is part of colonial legacy.” Further to this, it is assumed that technological and scientific advancement is intrinsically tied to the usage of foreign languages which are erroneously regarded to be technically superior to any other African language. It is in this vein that some Africans more especially the educated elite hold that for Africa to advance in the globalised world, one prerequisite among others is the adherence to the foreign languages particularly English. Thus despite the fact that the vast majority of the African people cannot effectively communicate in such foreign languages. 

Why is the usage of foreign languages in Africa a colonial legacy as George Kamba puts it? One may ask. In his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture entitled Consciousness And African Renaissance which he presented at the University of Cape Town in September 2003, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued that a person without a consciousness of his/her being in the world is lost and can easily be guided by another to wherever the guide wants to take him/her, even to his/her own peril or extinction. Since memory which is part and parcel of consciousness lies in language, colonialism in essence meant the subjugation of the colonised to the memory of the colonialists. One means that was used to achieve this was the naming system. In this regard the memory of the colonialists was implanted on our landscape through language by re-naming it. For instance a place called Tswane was renamed Pretoria, Egoli became Johannesburg. The gigantic water falls along the Zambezi river which was formerly known as Mosi-oa-tunya meaning ‘smoke that thunders’ became Victoria Falls. The Great East African lake formerly called Namlolwe by the Luo people became Lake Victoria. Through language the memory of the colonialists was also stamped on our bodies. Thus African names like Sangwani, Chikawachi, Sekanawo, Atupele which were considered to be ‘heathen’ by the colonialists were replaced by such names as William, Smith, Gloria, Rose and the like. As such our bodies interms of self identity through our own languages to a certain extent remain branded by the memory of those that at one time colonised our land.

Not only that but the memory of the colonialists was also implanted on our own intellect through language. To a greater extent African writers, musicians, artists, technocrats, legislators and academics who ought to be generators and custodians of our knowledge and information greatly feel that knowledge and information in this modern day and age cannot be stored in any of the African languages. In his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o then asked, “Is an African Renaissance possible when we, the keepers of memory have to work outside our own linguistic memory? Working within the prison house of European memory?”

In his inaugural lecture entitled The Role of Language in National Development which was delivered at the University of Malawi (Chancellor College) in September 2002, Professor Alfred Mtenje stated, “In African context development in general cannot be realized without taking into consideration the use of the indigenous languages, the languages of the masses, the majority of whom are illiterate and have no access to foreign languages.”

Professor Alfred Mtenje went on further to contend that it is a well known fact among linguists that no language is inferior to any other let alone incapable of incorporating modern science and technology. 

Concurring with Professor Alfred Mtenje is Professor Kwesi K. Prah who in his paper Facing The Future which he presented at the 2nd Conference of African Languages in Education, Science and Technology at the University of Pretoria in July 2002 argued that all languages are capable of developing if necessary resources are provided for this purpose. He further cited Afrikaans as a very good example of one language which has been developed from a status of a non scientific to a completely technical language over a short period of time. Besides linguistic research has proved that whatever term i.e. technical, scientific or otherwise expressed in English can equally be said in any other language including of course any African language. For instance the Bible has been successfully translated into hundreds of African languages, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been exhaustively described in a Senegalese language called Wolof, various technical and scientific terminologies have been developed in Swahili (Tanzania), Oshindongo (Namibia) among others.

Empirical evidence also suggests that no country has ever achieved sustainable development while using a foreign language. Contrary to a fallacy that is generally held, English is a minority language on mainland Europe and Asia where some of the most technologically advanced nations like Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Nordic countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Israel and others conduct their entire education system in their own national languages. It is also important to draw lessons from the pages of history which bear witness that the European Renaissance that spanned roughly from the 14th Century through the 17th century, was essentially a process of disengagement from hegemonic Latin language, the discovery and development of European nation’s own tongues. Subsequently this led to a massive and sustained translation and transfer of knowledge from Latin and Greek into the emerging European vernaculars. For instance the Bible was first translated from Latin into English in 1383 by John Wycliffe and associates though amidst fierce resistance that cost the lives of the readers of that particular version who were burned at stake with their copies hanging from their necks. Later one English scholar called William Tyndale was tried of heresy, condemned, strangled on 6th October 1536 and his body burned at stake after translating the Bible from Greek to English. 

In the final analysis, the view that African languages by their nature cannot adequately express scientific, intellectual and technical concepts has no valid basis. It is therefore no exaggeration to conclude that the wanton hatred and profound contempt of African languages by the Africans particularly the educated elite is a clear manifestation of the extent to which psychologically the Africans remain entangled in colonial fetters after over 40 years of political independence.

References

Kamba, G., Whither To Local Languages. Nation Newspaper (of Malawi), 7th January 2008.

Mtenje, A. The Role of Language in National Development. Paper presented at his Inaugural lecture at the University of Malawi (Chancellor College), September 2002.

Parmelee, A. (1956). A Guide Book To The Bible. From page 148 to 154.

Prah, K. Facing The Future. Paper presented at 2nd Conference of African Languages in Education, Science and Technology at the University of Pretoria, July 2002.

Thiong’o, N. Consciousness And African Renaissance. Lecture presented during the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, September 2003


[1] The author is a researcher at Malawi Congress of Trade Unions.


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