LINGUIST List 15.1863

Sat Jun 19 2004

Review: Sociolinguistics: Mazrui (2004)

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  1. Brent Henderson, English in Africa: After the Cold War

Message 1: English in Africa: After the Cold War

Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2004 14:09:26 -0400 (EDT)
From: Brent Henderson <>
Subject: English in Africa: After the Cold War

AUTHOR: Mazrui, Alamin M.
TITLE: English in Africa: After the Cold War
SERIES: Multilingual Matters
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters, Ltd. 
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Brent Henderson, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 


Mazrui's book is a brief, opinionated essay concerning the reality of
English use in Africa in the context of globalization and the
post-colonial legacy. Assuming a general background knowledge of
colonialism in Africa, Mazrui explores current trends of English
expansion and contraction in Africa, its impact on the educational
system, and its role in the quest for Pan-African unity and
Afrocentric discourse. The goal of the book is to spark dialogue about
the major issues involved in English use in Africa in its global
context with the hope that progress can be made toward linguistic


The Introduction immediately dispels the common and simplistic notion
that forces of globalization are forcing the spread of English at the
direct expense of indigenous languages. The situation is much more
complicated, and Mazrui believes that the marginalization of
indigenous African languages (and their speakers) cannot be combated
without a proper understanding of the issue involved. At the center of
the situation is Africa's relatively weak linguistic nationalism as
well as Africa's heavy political and educational dependence on
imperial languages. The key question for Mazrui is whether or not
English can be adopted to carry the weight of the African
experience. If it can, efforts must be made to make it so. If it
cannot, then indigenous African languages must be moved front-and-
center in the dialogue of African issues. Mazrui states up front that
this will be an opinionated essay, 'one way of seeing, one voice in
the stadium of African voices.' (pg 10).

In Chapter 1 Mazrui outlines six changes in the global political
reality precipitated by the end of the Cold War, relating each to the
spread of English as a global language:

1. The increased Americanization of globalization has been a stimulus
for the global spread of English.

2. The fall of the USSR has increased competition between the US and
European powers, leading to an increase of English infiltration into
Francophone areas of Africa.

3. The decline of the nation state has made it difficult for a country
to impose its ideological will on its people, including language
policy. Regional cooperation between countries is also increasing,
resulting in an expansion of imperial language (or sometimes
indigenous lingua francas) use.

4. The construction of Islam as the West's 'Other' has stimulated a
return to Arabic movement in Africa. But because people who speak
Arabic are often considered 'ethnically Arab,' and because of
English's ecumenical quality, the movement hasn't been widespread.

5. The spread of pluralistic government encouraged by the US has led
to a spread of English (as the language of liberation) as well as a
refocus on local languages as 'ethno-nationalistic' trends have

6. IMF and World Bank demands for a decrease in educational subsidies
have made education in Africa a property of the rich elite. Since the
elite know English well, this leads to further westernization of
education in Africa and a growing rift between a westernized upper
class and the masses.

Mazrui's conclusion is that English provides a way for creating
counter-hegemonic discourses, but also deepens Africa's intellectual
dependency on the West. Indeed, this tension between adopting English
as a tool of liberation and yet not being limited by the use of an
imperial language is the central question of the book and Mazrui deals
with it in a number of contexts.

Chapter 2 explores the history and continued use of English and
indigenous languages in the educational systems of Africa. Mazrui
argues that the domination of English at the secondary and
post-secondary levels has created an 'intellectual dependence' ' both
in material and psychological terms ' on the West, and that this
dependency cannot be separated from linguistic dependency. Because
learning English happens through a formal system of Western-style
education (inherited from the colonial legacy), one cannot learn
English without adopting other aspects of Western culture as well.

The chapter concludes with Mazrui's (1995) five processes of
decolonization, adapted to become five imperatives for language and
education policy in Africa:

1. Indigenization: indigenous languages must be used more for instruction.

2. Domestication: English must be Africanized, along with the Western
school system.

3. Diversification: African languages must respond to stimuli from
languages other than just English and French.

4/5. Horizontal inter-penetration and vertical counter- penetration:
African languages and cultures must exert greater influence on Western
cultures and on each other. A greater effort in translation would
serve this objective.

Part II of the book examines Africa in its global- historical context,
taking into account aspects of the Diaspora. Mazrui argues that
globalization has created a 'global apartheid' that may have created
conditions for a renewed effort of Pan-Africanism. Chapter 2
highlights the crucial role played by English in facilitating the
beginnings of the Pan-African movement, initiated by African-Americans
whose only language was English. Though English has divided
African-Americans and Africans, it was also adopted as the 'language
of freedom' because the concepts of justice, freedom, and human rights
were part of its cultural legacy. Mazrui points out, however, that
while imperial languages may help introduce the concepts of rights,
they are also impediments to these rights. The central tension
mentioned above again rears its head: a balance must be struck between
the question for unity among African peoples and the imperative of
social justice realized by linguistic liberation. Moreover, Mazrui
points out that a true Pan-Africanism cannot be centered on the common
language of English alone, but must include Francophone and Lusophone
peoples as well as those in the Caribbean and Arab nations.

Mazrui argues that while English can be useful to create
counter-hegemonic discourse, it can only be reactionary since it
remains an imperial language. A wholly independent African
perspective, he claims, must be accomplished through the use of
indigenous languages. Given the dependence of the African elite on
imperial languages right now, Mazrui claims that this possibility can
only be realized through the African masses who are still tied closely
to indigenous tongues.

As to the possibility of a 'Black national language' (often suggested
by groups concerned with African unity), Mazrui remains
skeptical. Rather, he argues for the centering of indigenous languages
in political life, complemented by an increased domestication of
English and the incorporation of other global languages into the Pan-
Africanist agenda, along with increased effort to penetrate the
intellectual fortresses of the North while building bridges of
cooperation in the South.

Chapter four explores the relation of English to the recent rise of
Afrocentricity. Afrocentricity is a view of the world which puts
Africa at the center of global concerns and 'idealizes its role in
human affairs' (pg 95). It is thus different from Pan-Africanism,
defined as a quest for economic and political unity among African
peoples. Afrocentrists have been actively engaged in the domestication
of English, often employing terms and concepts from African languages
to construct symbolic bridges within the language. Kiswahili has been
the biggest source for this due to its success as an international
language. In fact, Kiswahili has repeatedly been mentioned as a
candidate for a Black national language, though little has ever been
done to facilitate such a use. Mazrui spends a few pages examining the
issues involved in such an adoption, outlining the debate about
whether Islam and Arabic (to which Kiswahili is culturally and
linguistically tied) are 'authentically' African.

Mazrui concludes that Afrocentricity has not gone far enough in its
domestication of English to free Afrocentric discourse in English from
its reactive nature and from largely being a tool of the elite. Though
much interesting work has been done, Afrocentricity has largely been
an exercise of intellectuals and academics with little impact on the

The Conclusion of the book comes back to the two schools of thought
that have created the chief conflicts of the essay: should African
languages be shifted to the center of African life, or should efforts
be concentrated on coming to terms with English as part of the
Africa's reality and domesticating it to carry the weight of the
African experience?

Mazrui comes down on the side of African languages, arguing that the
latter option of 'envoicing' English only takes place within the elite
intellectual class. He points out that, historically, the true
domestication of an imperial language has always been 'rooted in the
broader struggles for a radically new social order.' He points to
Algeria and Grenada as examples.


Mazrui draws from an interesting array of sources including historical
documents, scholarly works, and works by African literary figures,
reflecting just how deeply this issue effects every aspect of African
society. This essay is a perfect work for seminars or reading groups
focused on globalization and language or decolonialization. Though
opinionated, Mazrui covers the breadth of the issues involved and
resists any unfair indictments of English as a tool of imperialism and
nothing more. Indeed, in Chapter 3 Mazrui raises the question of
whether a Pan-African movement, or indeed any movement toward African
unity, would have been possible without English and other imperial
languages. Though skeptical, Mazrui is open to the possibility that
English could be domesticated enough to legitimately express African
intellectual discourse, pointing to Ebonics and Nigerian English as
possible examples. One criticism is possible here. Ultimately, Mazrui
comes own on the side of African languages for two reasons stated
above: 1) English could only be truly domesticated if this
transformation were part of a radical social transformation, and 2) as
a language principally confined to the elite, English cannot carry the
voice of the masses. It seems to me, however, that if the 'global
apartheid' described by Mazrui is recognized by the masses, then
conditions could be right for (1) to take place, beginning with
countries whose populations do employ some form of English as a lingua
franca. In other words, a true domestication of English may not be
entirely out of the question.

Second, though it is certainly unfair to suggest gaps in an essay
written for such a specific purpose, one area neglected by Mazrui
involves the practicalities of language planning and policy. The
ultimate conclusion of the essay is that indigenous African languages
must be re-centered in African political life in order to create a
legitimate independent intellectual discourse. Little attention is
given, however, to the issues involved in accomplishing this
goal. Should regional lingua francas be employed at the expense of
smaller indigenous languages? Should indigenous languages used in the
education system be local languages or more widely spoken indigenous
tongues? Aside from reforming the educational system, how can wider
use of African languages be encouraged? Mazrui, like many authors who
write on this topic, point to the success linguistic nationalism of
'Swahilization' in Tanzania. However, Swahili was widely employed as a
lingua franca in Tanzania before independence. Moreover, the highly
fragmented ethno- linguistic landscape of the country meant that a
lingua franca was necessary and allegiances to local languages were
relatively weak. This has not been the case in Kenya, for example,
where allegiances to larger languages (such as Gikuyu and Luo) are
strong, creating resistance to the use of Swahili as a lingua franca
despite its use in the education system. My point is simply that
language policy cannot be decided based simply on political debate and
then implemented like economic or health care policy can. The process
of re-centering African languages in African political life is a
complex task whose facets cannot be counted. While I am certain Mazrui
is aware of the difficulties involved in language planning, his essay
is content to leave those issues for policy makers to work out,
expounding only the need for such reforms in the wider global
political context.


Brent Henderson is a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University
of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Major research interests include
minimalist morphology and syntax and the grammar of Bantu
languages. Other professional interests include varying aspects of
African linguistics; the political science of East Africa; the history
and use of Kiswahili. He has taught Kiswahili at UIUC and studied at
the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
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