Africa: Speak It, Keep It, Tweet It - Reaffirming the Pride and Place of African Languages

13 June 2014

From governments elevating local languages in classrooms, to internet-users chatting in their mother tongues, Africa's indigenous languages are on the up.

Since the Africa Rising meme started gaining steam in the past few years, it has generated countless worthwhile debates. However, while most of this discussion has centred on important issues such as GDP growth, infrastructural challenges and political openness, one subject that has enjoyed far less attention is culture.

Furthermore, while the debates over the former matters tend to result in significantly muddied waters over the question of whether Africa is actually rising, evidence around the latter tends to point in one clear direction.

From the rising popularity of genres such as Afrobeat in mainstream global music, to the gigantic growth of Nollywood, to the proliferation of African art exhibitions, African culture is on the up.

African creative works are spreading across the world, while we also seem to be witnessing a cultural re-affirmation in many African communities themselves.

This is happening in many spheres and at many different levels, including, crucially, that fundamental building block of culture, that living and adapting symbol of civilisation, that carrier of history, meaning and tradition: language.

Across much of Africa, local languages are being protected, reclaimed and elevated, both from the top down and from the bottom up.

English ... do you speak it?

From the top down, there seems to be evidence of an increasing governmental interest in cementing, highlighting and maintaining local languages. In recent months, for example, there has been a flurry of policies related to the place of indigenous language.

In March, for instance, President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia announced that English was being dropped as the country's official language. It wasn't made clear what would replace it and part of the reasoning for the move may have related to the deteriorating relations between The Gambia and the UK, but Jammeh explained his reasoning by saying: "We no longer subscribe to the belief that for you to be a government you should speak English language. We should speak our language."

At the start of this year in Zambia meanwhile, the government implemented a policy where by the language of instruction in lower primary schools was swapped from English to local languages.

The change has not been without its critics - especially where people believe the schools are teaching the 'wrong' local language - but the government justified the move by explaining, "It is the policy of the PF [the ruling Patriotic Front party] to revive vernacular languages because a language gives us identity."

Furthermore, a few days ago, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly made a similar assertion when she renewed requests for Kiswahili to be made one of the official languages of the East African Community (EAC). "We have no problem with English being one of the official languages," she said, "but Kiswahili being a community-wide language in all the five partner states ... should be given some status in the EAC affairs."

These trends may not be occurring all across the continent - for example, some South African schools have reportedly been quietly removing Zulu and Xhosa from school curricula in favour of English. And it is true that language policy changes are often more political or economic than cultural - both Rwanda and Gabon's move away from French and towards English can be seen in this light.

But as African economies grow and the world continues to globalise, there does seem to be a clear sense that more and more governments and figures in positions of power are recognising the importance and place of Africa's thousands of local languages.

Speaking on social media

At the same time that officials and, in particular, those in charge of education systems seem to be rethinking the importance of indigenous languages, those languages are also receiving a boost from the grassroots upwards. This has been significantly facilitated and boosted by the spread of mobile telephony and the internet.

As more and more people in Africa have logged on to communicate with one another, their conversations have often not been in English, French and Portuguese, but in Wolof, Tswana, Luganda or any one of a multitude of other local languages.

Many of these languages were previously solely spoken, but their newly written form on social media has even forced the giants of the internet to take notice. Facebook, for example, now boasts versions in Swahili, Somali, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Zulu, while Google Translate has added Zulu, Yoruba, Somali, Igbo and Hausa to its list.

The BBC has also recently joined forces with Blackberry to help provide news updates in Hausa to their readers in Nigeria. At the same time, many web users have actively pushed for greater representation. The #TweetYoruba campaign, for example, started in 2012 as a way to pressure Twitter to include Yoruba in its translation project.

Through the proliferation of the internet and social media, Africa's indigenous languages have been given a new and open space in which to breathe and grow. And as more and more content is produced in these languages, they are also likely to spread and extend their roots in African culture and day-to-day life in fresh and innovative ways.

Language is our link to our culture - to our ancestors, histories, and communities - and from top-down government policies to bottom-up tweets and g-chat conversations, it seems that Africa's thousands of local languages have been given a new and exciting lease of life.

Neil Payne started his professional life as an English language teacher in the Middle East before moving into language and localisation. Inspiring visits to Africa over the past 5 years led to the launch of Translation-Africa, an agency specialising in African language services. Follow him on twitter on @neil_kwint.

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