LINGUIST List 6.392

Sun 19 Mar 1995

Disc: Language Policy

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  1. , 6.351 Language policy

Message 1: 6.351 Language policy

Date: Fri, 17 Mar 1995 16:18:08 6.351 Language policy
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Subject: 6.351 Language policy

Frank Ashen focussed on the divisive effects of promoting
one of several indigenous languages to the position of official
language and used the much quoted justification that
speakers of not-chosen languages may feel disadvantaged.
He did not mention the effect of the introduction of a foreign
world language on the vernaculars. The introduction of
foreign official language has, in Africa, led to explicit negative
attitudes amongst the speakers themselves towards their

The alternative to the selection of an indigenous language as
official language seems to be to disadvantage the whole
population. In most African countries the foreign official
language generally has a very low penetration so that only the
elite know it. Knowledge of the official language then
becomes a new factor that determines access to power and
the well-paid jobs. At the same time the vernaculars are
ignored or stigmatised. This means that no or very little funds
are available for their development and teaching. This
means, to come back to Tove Skutnabb-Kangas' comments,
that the population cannot exercise their "right to learn their
mother tongue, both orally and in writing, up to a high level."

The assumption that Frank Ashen quotes is based on a false
departure point, namely that only a colonial language can
save an African country from being torn up by its own internal
divisions. I don't recall any wars based on language
differences prior to colonisation. Africa solved its linguistic
diversity by developing lingua francas.

Djit? recently (1993) showed that the use of so-called
international languages such as English and French have not
solved the communication problems of the African masses but
in many cases contributed towards the "pathology of linguistic
bakwardness". The fact that these languages (such as
Wolof, Swahili, Hausa, Lingala) are actually spreading -
without much official help - seems to indicate "a general
willingness for cooperation and a cultural and linguistic
tolerance that ignores the political boundaries inherited from
colonization" Djit? (1993:162) . Spencer (1985:395) claims
that the introduction of European languages to Africa retarded
the spread of what he calls "African vehicular languages".

However, Adegbija (1994:26-27) is sceptical of the ability of
African lingua francas of being accepted outside their present
geographical domains. He also warns against the imposition
of these languages.

It would seem that we need a three-language policy such as
that of India: one language for communication with the
outside world known by a relatively small section of the
population; one lingua franca for national and regional
communication and the various vernaculars for local business
and primary education. In many African countries this is the
de facto situation and trilingualism is more common in Africa
than outside linguists seem to realise. This suggestion might
avoid the subtractive language learning (that characterises
many African communities) and that Tove Skutnabb-Kangas
finds "a violation of minorities' linguistic rights".

The sources that I referred to:
Adegbija, E. 1994 Language attitudes in Africa: a
sociolinguistic overview. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Djit?, P.G. 1993 "Language development in Africa." In:
International journal of the sociology of language
Spencer, J. 1985 "Language and development in Africa: the
unequal equation." In: Wolfson, N. and J. Manes (eds.)
1985 Language of inequality. Berlin: Mouton:387-397.

August Cluver
Department of Linguistics
University of South Africa
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