Indigenous African Languages are Dying Out and it’s a Good Thing.
Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, especially among middle to upper-class African millennials and Generation Z. If the stats are to be believed, then the next generation of business leaders, academics and politicians in countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya will speak English as a first, and perhaps only language.
Many are alarmed by this prospect, denouncing it as a loss of culture and ethnic identity that must be stopped at all costs. Various suggestions have been put forward ranging from the implementation of revised school curriculums, to the promotion of indigenous languages in mass media, and even the launching of grass-root campaigns aimed at encouraging parents to speak native languages to their children.
Some would call me crazy, disrespectful or self-hating but I take a different view. I think it is a trend that should be celebrated and welcomed with open arms. As with other sacred cows of African culture that have been sacrificed at the altar of progress, we must also be willing to put native languages to the sword for the sake of nation building. I consider it no coincidence that the poorest continent in the world is also the most linguistically diverse continent in the world. According to UNESCO, Africans as a whole speak a combined total of around 2,000 different languages, which roughly equates to about one third of the entire world’s linguistic heritage. For those who would point to this statistic as evidence of the cultural richness of the continent, I have a simple question. Which is better, cultural wealth or economic wealth?
Whenever intellectuals gather round to discuss the causes of African underdevelopment, very rarely does anyone point a finger at the division and disunity caused by indigenous languages. Most African intellectuals are careful to avoid engaging the issue, so as not to be labeled as having what the legendary Fela Kuti called ‘Colonial Mentality.’ The reality of the matter is clear for all those who are willing to look honestly at the facts: Based on current and historic data, there is virtually no evidence in support of the idea that a country can create and sustain economic prosperity while equally maintaining the same level of linguistic diversity currently observable in most African countries — in fact, there is strong evidence to the contrary. Of the top ten most developed countries in the world, according to the UN’s human development index, Singapore is the only country with any notable level of linguistic diversity, with a grand total of four languages in use (of which English is the Lingua Franca). Contrast that with the situation in Africa: Nigeria alone is said to have over 400 dialects, Cameroon has over 250, etc. There is such a strong correlation between linguistic homogeneity and economic prosperity, that it cannot be ignored in our quest to see the continent transformed.
A fundamental prerequisite for the pan-African vision put forward by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe is that the walls that separate Africans from each other be pulled down. The strong link between language and ethno-national identity means that linguistic differences are one of the most formidable barriers to African unity. A man’s language is probably the most significant determining factor of what tribal or national identity he adopts. It therefore stands to reason that a country that is home to large populations of people who speak different languages will always struggle to establish a cohesive sense of national unity across its people groups. In the case of modern African states, this lack of national unity has been a key contributing factor to the current climate of identity politics, nepotism, tribalism, civil war and unpatriotic leadership.
Growing up in a Yoruba household, I have a good first-hand understanding of the sentiment of ethnic pride that comes from speaking one’s native tongue. As far as my parent’s generation were concerned, being unable to speak the language of your forefathers was a sort of unpardonable sin — evidenced by the all too familiar awkwardness that ensued when an uncle or aunty would open up conversation in Yoruba, only for me to respond in English. Their general view was that English was the “white man’s language” and therefore adopting English as my first language was a form of submission to, or even approval of colonial dominance. However, I was not born in a British colony, but rather the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a sovereign nation which chose to adopt English as her official language for the sake of national unity.
As far as I was concerned, the language we spoke was authentically ours. It was not the language I heard on the BBC World Service or in hollywood movies — perhaps that language could more rightly be classified as the ‘white man’s language’; because what they colloquially referred to as a ‘traffic Jam’ we called a ‘go-slow,’ what they called a ‘minibus,’ to us was a ‘danfo.’ The man they called ‘wretched’ was to us a ‘sufferhead.’ The uncooperative man to them was described as ‘being stubborn’ but to us, he was ‘just forming stronghead.’ In formal settings, we spoke the language of Achebe, Okri and Soyinka not that of Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain. I did not grow up speaking a ‘white man’s language.’ I spoke English as spoken in Nigeria…Nigerian English.
Yes — of course, one must not be naive, European languages were indeed superimposed on Africans during the colonial era, but that being said, this form of cultural imperialism is not in any way unusual when viewed in light of the common experience of all mankind. Throughout the ages, men have sought to build empires, going out to conquer other men and imposing new norms on their subjects. As with other parts of the world, conquest was also standard practice in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans. Stronger African tribes were constantly expanding their territories, wealth and influence by conquering weaker neighboring tribes. You need look no further than the millions of slaves that were sold by ancient African rulers to the Americas and the Arab world. Many of these slaves were in fact prisoners of local warfare, kidnappings and conquest.
The irony of the matter is that while many would consider the unwavering dedication of some Africans, to the preservation of their native languages and norms to be an act of resistance, it was actually a key component of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that was employed by the colonialists in their bid to subjugate the continent. When the European powers gathered in Berlin to divide the African continent, it was not out of ignorance that they divided the continent in a way that paid no regard to the existing tribal orders. Using the Nigerian situation as an example, the British government chose to lump together groups of people with significant religious, cultural and linguistic differences. This was a clear recipe for disaster of which they were well aware, as evidenced by the fact that they did not apply the same kind of thinking to their own people. At home, they maintained a degree of separation between the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh, even though these groups had a lot more in common than the Yorubas, Igbos and Hausas who were involuntarily united under the Nigerian banner.
The British certainly reaped the reward of their labor with the emergence of an unpatriotic and greedy political class with no loyalty whatsoever to the newly formed republic of no man’s land. The French and Portuguese achieved even better results with their colonies; successfully creating a fine bunch of banana republics, each with its own unique value offering, be it oil, gold, diamonds, timber or cocoa. The strategy served to greatly reduce the number of European soldiers that needed to deployed on African soil, as it significantly reduced the need for continuous military confrontation. It was cost-effective, efficient and most importantly, virtually certain to succeed. The battle was over before it even began. The existing fragmentation of the peoples of the continent gave them absolutely no chance against a more united and calculating opponent.
Today we see evidence that a key component of the divide and conquer infrastructure laid down by the colonialists may be under threat. The threat of a generation that is pulling down age-old tribal barriers; a generation that see themselves as being born into free and sovereign nations without the mental baggage of how those nations came to be. A generation that understands that their parents’ tendency to separate tribal from national identity inevitably simplifies the work of those seeking to plunder their resources. A generation that understands that the current instability and divisions within African countries are an absolute joy for those benefiting from the cheap supply of resources and capital flight that flows freely out of the continent. A generation that realises that until we have a Nigeria of Nigerians, a Rwanda of Rwandans and a Kenya of Kenyans, these countries will never know any real progress. Their resources will remain open for pillage, their progress will be the pride and joy of no one in particular, and their enemies will face no resistance. This is the generation I want to be a part of.
I have great sympathy for those whose approach to the problem of division is to advocate for the breaking up of African states into smaller nations, more in line with the historical distribution of the tribes that occupied the region in the pre-colonial era. However valid as this suggestion may be in theory, I suggest that it is undesirable and largely unworkable in practice. The millions of lives lost during the Biafran war in Nigeria have taught us that separation is not necessarily the easier option. Instead, we should set our sights and direct our efforts towards nation-building. We should not see the breaking away of tribal barriers as a loss of identity, but as the creation of a new identity.
The road to progress is near impossible for those that exalt sentiment over truth. In order for us to move forward, we must be willing to put our feelings aside and look directly at hard facts with an objective eye. One of such bitter truths that we must all be willing to admit is that; economically speaking, the political restructuring of the African continent implemented during the colonial era, has on the whole, done a great a deal of good to the region. We say the average African is poor today, but in fact he is only poor relative to current global standards. Middle to upper-class Africans living in cities like Lagos, Kigali, Luanda and Nairobi, enjoy standards of living much higher than even the local chiefs and kings that would have occupied those same territories during the pre-colonial era.
Post-colonial Africa has richly benefitted from the economies of scale that have resulted from the merging of various people groups whom would otherwise have remained separate from each other. Africans enjoy a comparatively much higher standard of living thanks to the emergence of new industries that only exist as a result of the coming together of a mix of people, who hitherto would have struggled to even communicate with each other. You need not look any further than the post-colonial population boom in Nigeria as evidence of how much stronger we are together. There is no way such a drastic expansion in the population would have happened without the emergence of the thriving food and healthcare industries which have contributed to a drastic reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy across the nation.
Identity politics is the name of the game in most African countries. There is no real ideological left-wing/right-wing divide between the political parties. In Nigeria, I would struggle to find anyone who can point to the ideological underpinnings that differentiate the ruling APC from their main rivals the PDP. Politicians basically choose their parties based on the side that is more likely to boost their chances of entering office. They hop from party to party at the earliest opportunity because they are not guided by any deep-seated philosophical conviction, but by a winner-takes-all drive for power and influence. Even the Nigerian presidency is not decided on policies or competence, but on tribal identity and voter demographics. The average Nigerian voter can tell you the tribe, religion and maybe even the hometown of the incumbent president, but would struggle to list just 5 of the policy promises he made during his presidential campaign. This problem is present in virtually every area of Nigerian civic life. State governors, local government chairmen, ministers, commissioners and even judges are often appointed based on tribal identity as opposed to raw competence, ideas and track records. It goes without saying that the current arrangement is draining the life out of the country.
Interestingly, a united and tribalism-free Nigeria would not be a very conducive environment for the crop of incompetent demagogues currently running the country. It is therefore no surprise that they are satisfied with the current state of affairs. It would be rather naive and maybe even unreasonable to expect them to have any interest in promoting true national unity as that would be pure self-sabotage.
Nevertheless, there is hope for the next generation provided they are willing to be brave enough to reject the shortsighted, small-minded and self-centered ways of their predecessors. In a Nigeria of Nigerians, the political debate will be more about issues than tribal identity. Ministerial appointments will be based on competence and not the need to fill tribal quotas or pander to ethnic interest groups.
Nigerians today are not divided by tribal clothing, food or drink — if anything, these are the things with which we tend see a great deal of cultural exchange and appreciation. An Igbo man may enjoy wearing Yoruba attire and eating Yoruba food at his Yoruba friend’s wedding but will nevertheless feel out of place or even foreign, due to him not being able to speak or understand the Yoruba spoken by everyone around him. In the absence of language barriers, we automatically have a greater chance of eliminating tribalism as people can more easily identify with each other regardless of their ancestry. The ability of language to create tribes can be seen even in the professional world. For example, lawyers typically refer to non-lawyers as ‘laymen’ due to the non-lawyer’s inability to understand legal jargon. Therefore in a very interesting way, legal jargon as a technical form of English, separates people into tribes of ‘learned friends’ and ‘laymen.’ The same phenomenon can be observed in virtually every industry in which technical language is used, be it medicine, tech, engineering or accountancy. When one fully understands the power of language to create or divide tribes, its becomes almost impossible to see the withering away of native languages as anything other than a step in the right direction.
You need look no further than the success of Nollywood to see evidence of the economic benefits of a common language. This booming industry gives us a glimpse into the potential of a linguistically unified Nigeria. The use of English in our movies has broken tribal barriers, bringing together actors from all over the country. It has also granted access to a much larger target market. Nollywood movies are viewed all over the world, creating opportunities for not just screenwriters, actors and directors, but also tech entrepreneurs like Jason Njoku of Iroko TV. Even more amazing is the fact that despite Nollywood’s international success, there is still a huge amount of growth potential within Nigeria itself, even as our population of native English speakers continues to grow. The larger the audience, the more profitable our films will become, and the more likely we are to see good money put towards the production of higher quality films.
The market enlarging power of a common language is not limited to the movie industry. In fact, it rings true in virtually every sector, be it legal, retail, marketing or even manufacturing. It is always a lot easier to do business when you and your workforce speak the same language as your target customers. A common language fosters trust and transparency, which is a key factor for economic growth. It boosts the internal efficiency of businesses and also increases the willingness of customers to do business.
Although to a lesser degree than political entities, businesses can also fall victim to the wider tribal culture of the countries in which they operate. Their productivity and profitability can be greatly affected by internal conflicts between staff members from opposing tribes, and the prejudices of its upper management that may manifest itself in poor decision-making in terms of hiring, remuneration and investment. One cannot underestimate the degree to which internal conflict within public and private organizations can affect the economy of a country, especially when it occurs in multiple organizations across multiple sectors.
A fundamental prerequisite for the economic success of any nation is the development of its human capital i.e. the collective skills, knowledge and know-how of the individuals that make up its economy. Education is the primary means by which human capital is developed so it is, therefore, absolutely crucial that it is available to the largest number of people and delivered in the most efficient way possible. Some have suggested that the way to boost our academic attainment levels is to allow for the courses to be taught in native languages and not English. This is in my opinion an incredibly short-sighted and sentimental perspective which completely ignores the big picture. English is more than just than just the language of the Englishmen. On a deeper level, it is more like a conduit for the world’s historic, scientific and philosophical knowledge. Virtually anything that is worth knowing or writing about will have been written in, or translated to English. Furthermore, in today’s Internet age, education has moved beyond the classroom — anyone with an Internet connection and a curious mind can gain access to a nearly infinite amount of educational content for his or her personal development. A failure to equip the youth with the ability to study and reason in English would therefore impede their access to the ideas of some of the world’s leading minds.
With English being the global language of commerce, there are great economic benefits to be gained from being an English-speaking country, irrespective of the difficult circumstances that brought the language to African soil. The honest truth is that when push comes to shove, most people place their economic well being above their cultural heritage. There is no greater evidence of this than the eye-watering number of Africans that have chosen to emigrate to Europe and the Americas with no intentions of ever returning to their homeland. Once sentimentality and hypocrisy are put aside, it is undeniable that an English-speaking Nigeria is better equipped for economic success on the global stage than a linguistically diverse Nigeria.
As the economist Thomas Sowell put it, there are no solutions in life, there are only trade-offs. There is no easy solution to the negative effects of Africa’s linguistic diversity although a trade-off is certainly available: We can either hold on to our cultural pride and remain divided and un-prosperous or we can choose to opt for a new identity in which the adoption of common languages serve as a means by which the lines that separate tribal and national identity can be erased.