Can African Languages Unite the Continent?

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Some of African languages (photo credit:

By Florence Gichoya

On February 21st, every year, the world celebrates the ‘International Mother Language Day’ (IMLD). In that day, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), advocates for multilingual education for children in formal learning environment. This year’s theme for IMLD is to promote sustainable futures through multilingual education. The theme anchors Sustainable Development Goal number four, which in part, promotes all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, to achieve literacy and numeracy.

A few years ago, Kenya government released sessional paper 14 of 2012, instructing teachers in all public schools, to teach children below eight years in their vernacular language. The education policy elicited heated public debate. There was divided opinion on the benefits of using ‘Mother Language’ as a mode of learning instruction in schools. Others supported the policy quoting research findings on vernacular education in formal schools.

Still, there are genuine concerns on how curriculum on vernacular languages can be standardized, considering there are numerous distinct languages across the nation. A big challenge would be changing the society’s attitude towards teaching vernacular language.

According to the Cheavens report (1957) on Vernacular Languages in Education around the World, children who learn vernacular language before switching to a second language tend to develop better social skills.

A research study conducted in Philippines, showed students that were initially taught in English only, fared poorly compared to students that were first taught in their vernacular language before they were introduced to the English language. Dr. John R. Rickford opined that the second group of students caught up and outshined the students who started with English language only. They performed better in mathematics, English and social studies.

In 2014, South Africa government issued a similar directive to all public primary schools to start teaching a vernacular language to the students. Other African countries that have adopted vernacular language as medium of instruction in schools include Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Learning other languages helps to shed off stereotypes. Learning a vernacular language will help the learners to have an identity by connecting with their cultural backgrounds hence creating holistic individuals.

Africa divided along Language lines

There are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. It is the highest number of different languages in any continent. But despite the high number of languages, colonial history obligated countries to adopt English, French and Portuguese as official languages. The languages are used in the education, judicial, and governance system.

In post-colonial era, African states are still divided along language lines. Anglophone countries – states that were colonized by Britain gravitate together on common issues. On the other hand, francophone countries – those that were colonized by the French, are united in issues of common interest.

The division evidently played out in the recent elections of African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson. After a grueling 7 round of voting, the race had narrowed down to francophone countries supporting the winner Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat, while the Anglophone countries rallied behind Kenya’s Amina Mohamed.

This is based on the unwritten rule of rotating the AUC position between Anglophone and francophone countries. The former Chairperson, Dr. Ndamini Zuma, a South African was from an Anglophone country, and the French speaking countries were determined to have one of their own take the seat.

Amina observed that we live in a continent that is divided along foreign languages, “Africa is divided along language lines, even though the languages don’t belong to us. Yet the authors of those languages do not fight among themselves.”

The AU recognizes Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Kiswahili and other African language as the official language. However, the institution only identifies Arabic, English, French and Portuguese as the working language.

Power of language

Language can be used as a tool of oppression. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame led his country in joining the Commonwealth, leaving La Francophonie bloc that constitutes French speaking countries. Kagame maintains that France played a role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. France has denied the claims.

The infamous students’ riots that took place in Soweto, South Africa, in 1976, were as a result of the Apartheid government imposing the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction in all schools.

Still, today there are countries with internal divisions that are driven by historical ties to the languages of their colonial rulers. Cameroon is currently embroiled in an internal strife, after the national government curtailed internet freedom in two provinces, which are predominantly English speaking. The two Anglophone provinces were under the British colonial rule, while the rest of Cameroon was colonized by the French. The two regions unified to form the state of Cameroon and recognized both English and French as the official languages.

But, last year the Anglophone regions protested against the government’s directive to impose French as the language of instruction in education and judicial systems. President Paul Biya’s government retaliated by shutting down internet connection in the two English speaking provinces.

Could the solution be found in adopting African languages as national languages? Kenya’s national languages are Swahili and English. South Africa has 11 official languages, making it the country with the most official languages in the world. Having African languages as national languages promotes inclusivity, bolsters peaceful coexistence and a sense of national unity.

Vernacular languages have brought opportunities in different fields including arts, theatre, publishing and media. However, some of vernacular media stations were used to spread ethnic hatred during the Rwanda genocide and Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence.

Renowned Kenyan scholar, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has written award winning books in his native Kikuyu language. He implores Africans to embrace their indigenous languages remarking that ‘English is not an African language.’

Africa’s diverse languages should be the bridge that unites all communities. Research has shown that children can learn different languages at the same time. People who are multilingual are more receptive of other people’s customs and norms, and as a result, promote harmony. The appreciation of different languages will raise a generation of young people that are not bound by colonial history, but see themselves as Africans first.


3 thoughts on “Can African Languages Unite the Continent?

    Tamal said:
    February 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Great post. Informative and inquisitive at the same time. I have also recently written about International Mother Language day..

      florencegichoya responded:
      February 23, 2017 at 8:00 am

      Thank you. I have learnt a lot from your blog on the Asian perspective of mother language day. said:
    December 15, 2017 at 7:58 am

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