LINGUIST List 6.431

Fri 24 Mar 1995

Disc: Language Policy

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  1. , Re: 6.392 Language Policy
  2. benji wald, Re: 6.392 Language Policy

Message 1: Re: 6.392 Language Policy

Date: Tue, 21 Mar 1995 16:24:49 Re: 6.392 Language Policy
From: <>
Subject: Re: 6.392 Language Policy

August Culver writes:

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

Negative feelings about vernaculars seems related strongly to the
non-existence of written literary traditions. Languages without them,
seem to be devalued both by outsiders and speakers. To the best of my
knowledge, there is no such language anywhere in the world which
serves as the exclusive national language of a nation. It is
significant that Swahili and Malagasy (I believe the only indiginous
languages to serve as exclusive national languages in Sub-Saharan
Africa, both have written literary
traditions which predate European colonization. The origins of these
attitudes is an interesting question, but I don't believe a language
policy can afford to ignore them.

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.

And the use of Swahili as a national language in parts of East Africa
shows an indiginous lingua franca being used. However, it is a red
herring to state that there were no language based wars in Africa
prior to colonization. The situation and national boundaries were
very different. To the best of my knowledge, there were no language
based violent disputes in India prior to colonization, but this
didn't prevent very violent disputes from arising from the attempts
of sizeable portions of the population to resist the imposition of
Hindi as the sole national language.

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".

This sounds good in theory and some variant of it may be an eventual
solution in a number of African nations, however, we should be
mindful of a number of points:
1) The three language policy in India grew out of the resistance of a
large portion of the population to the imposition of Hindi.
2) The policy works insofar as it provides a cover for practices
which are fairly distinct from the theory. Hindi is not used in much
of the south except where absolutely required for communication with
the central government. In much of the north, a South Indian language
is not learned as assumed by the policy but another North Indian
language, sometimes Sanskrit.
3) Africa is not India, India has a large number of languages with
written literary traditions and thus speakers who feel that they are
adequate to be national languages. Africa has a shortage of such
languages. What works in one situation may not work in the other.

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

Frank Anshen
Dept of Linguistics
State U of NY, Stony Brook
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Message 2: Re: 6.392 Language Policy

Date: Tue, 21 Mar 95 23:13 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.392 Language Policy

Cluver's posting about the adoption of an "international" language
like English as the official language in various African nations
indicates the complexity of the topic. Particularly interesting and
important are his observations about such languages becoming elite,
since they are acquired with schooling -- and in many places most
people cannot afford (pay the money) to go to school. However, the
situation is even more complicated and ambiguous than Cluver's
message indicates. For example, there might seem to be a contradiction
in his claim that on one hand the official adoption of a foreign
language makes "people" (which people?) look down on their own language,
and, on the other, that African lingua francas continue to spread
without governmental help (a misstatement for Swahili in Tanzania, to
criticise the overgeneralising in his examples). About the first hand,
it is not my experience that people look down on their own language
just because they find some other language, European or African, useful
for wider communication. Thus, in Bantu-speaking East Africa at least
people have a great deal of respect and pride in their ethnic languages.
Rather than look down on them, as they adopt wider languages they
become insecure and apologetic about their inadequate command of their
parents' language. And parents complain about their children's control
of it too, e.g., to quote one Digo parent (Kenyan coast) "when I
sit down with my friends we could talk Digo for 24 hours without
uttering a single word of Swahili, but the kids today can't go five
minutes without saying at least 5 Swahili words." The issue is NOT as
Cluver presents it for East Africa. What is happening in Namibia
may be something else, but its history and social conditions are
different. I remember some Angolans telling me that the Portuguese
educational system there would try to make them look down on their
own languages. But the Portuguese, like the French, wanted the
Africans to "become" Portuguese and French. The English and Germans
had no such parallel plans for Africans under their control. There
is a major historical difference in colonial attitude -- and yet I'm
not claiming that African attitudes toward their own vs. official
languages correlate well with colonial policy. However, if they
did, Namibia (German than Afrikaans) should be more similar to
Kenya than Cluver would have us believe. Anyway, I find it
objectionable to generalise to all parts of Africa on the basis
of one, or even two, three, four locations. And why would
something generalise to a world as complex as Africa, but not far

As is well known from, say, the writings of Carol Scotton, English
is indeed very prestigious in Kenya, and used in marked ways in
some contexts, among those who speak it. My favorite example,
however, is from someone who does not speak it. We went for a drink
at a bar one day, as we had done several times before. My companion
said, "Benji. Talk English to me today (we always spoke Swahili or
Digo) because today I have money." But he only knew about three or
four phrases in English. No matter. The message was clear. The
people in the bar knew me and knew him, and now I was talking English
to him. For your next language policy class: what did the people
in the bar (nobody talked English there) think? Benji
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