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Review of  Language Decline and Death in Africa

Reviewer: Michael C. Cahill
Book Title: Language Decline and Death in Africa
Book Author: Herman Batibo
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.3542

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Date: Thu, 8 Dec 2005 15:56:48 -0600
From: Mike Cahill
Subject: Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes,
Consequences, and Challenges

AUTHOR: Batibo, Herman M.
TITLE: Language Decline and Death in Africa
SUBTITLE: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges
SERIES: Multilingual Matters 132
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Mike Cahill, SIL International


The first four chapters of this slim volume (129 pages of text, plus
several indexes and appendices) are a good introduction to the
language situation in Africa as a whole, while the last four chapters
explicitly address issues of language endangerment.

Chapter 1 is a useful summary of the language families of Africa –
where they are spoken, and a few sample languages. Batibo (B) also
introduces what I find a useful term – ''plurilingualism'' - to label a
situation where a country or continent has many languages,
reserving ''multilingual'' to describe an individual speaking several
languages. He also sketches the situation with regard to language
contacts between African languages, both ancient and modern, and
the situations that arise from these.

Chapter 2 introduces patterns of language use and prestige. B
presents an admittedly idealized ''triglossic'' structure of language use,
with a colonial language often having higher prestige than a dominant
indigenous language. However, the dominant indigenous language
has more prestige than a minority language. Here he also mentions
that national leaders associate ex-colonial languages with socio-
economic development, and this trumps resolutions for promotions of
indigenous languages passed by OAU and similar bodies (including
linguists…). He describes characteristics of dominant languages which
make them dominant, and also the dynamism of languages in contact
that leads to phenomena of code-mixing, code-switching, and
borrowing. His summary statement is a guiding principle for those
involved in trying to sustain endangered languages: ''As long as
speakers see some social status or socio-economic value in their
languages, they will certainly wish to maintain them.''

Chapter 3 talks of characteristics of African languages, viewing them
as a resource. First he discusses the functions that languages play,
focusing on Africa, but the same points could be made elsewhere in
the world. Language serves as a vehicle for cultural transmission, as a
means of self-identity, societal cohesion, social stratification, of
socialization and even establishing social relations (a young lady in
Lomé addressed by a young man in the Mina language may answer in
French as a sign that she does not desire any relationship with him). B
then goes on to summarize the unique linguistic characteristics of
African languages, from clicks to labialvelars to ATR vowel harmony,
noun class systems, serial verb constructions, etc. The cultural wealth
of African languages is illustrated, with figurative speech,
proverbs, ''joking relations,'' etc. The indigenous languages could be
used for national development, but generally are not.

Chapter 4 delves into the status of minority languages in more detail,
defining them not only in terms of low number of speakers, but also
functionally as not being used in official or public domains. Colonial
languages may be actually spoken by relatively few people, but they
function in public domains more commonly. Local languages may be
areally dominant, and these are not considered minority languages
either. In most African nations, most of the languages are minority
languages. Speakers of these are often caught in a dilemma, wishing
to retain their own linguistic and cultural heritage, but also wanting
access to education and better-paying jobs. Even though studies have
shown the advantages of mother-tongue education, most minority
languages have no resources for such. Governments, in their
understandable desire for national unity and to eradicate tribalism,
often devalue or actively discourage minority languages in their
language policies.

In Chapter 5, B starts in on specifics of endangered African
languages, first defining endangered as ''threatened by extinction,''
and noting that endangerment is a sliding scale, with ''highly
endangered'' on one end and ''safe'' on the other. He discusses
factors leading to language endangerment when two unequal
languages are in contact. These include the resistance of the weaker
language to the stronger one, the amount of pressure exerted by the
stronger language, and finally, the perceived advantages of joining
the stronger community. He acknowledges that any attempt to quantify
endangerment runs into the problem of inadequate data, and so many
of the conclusions must remain ''highly speculative.'' For information
on specific languages, B cites a number of resources which the
serious investigator might consult, including the Ethnologue (Grimes
2000), and various papers from Brenzinger's (1998) volume. The
remainder of the chapter is a country-by-country summary, listing
population, major languages, and what B considers highly
endangered languages. His judgment of the latter is based on
population figures, degree of bilingualism in the dominant language,
socio-political pressures, negative attitudes and non-transmission of
the language to children, and especially where only older people
spoke the language. It is admittedly based on partial information in
many cases, but he estimates that 14% of African languages are
presently highly endangered.

In Chapter 6, B defines more carefully the processes of language shift
and language death. He mentions the Gaelic-Arvanitika model of
Sasse, based on causal factors leading to cessation of transmission of
the language, but spends more time on his own model, a process-
based one. This model assumes that for language shift and eventually
death to take place, there must be bilingualism, a differential prestige
in the 2 languages, and that attraction to the new language outweighs
resistance to change. It has five phases: 1) relative monolingualism, 2)
bilingualism with L1 predominance, 3) bilingualism with L2
predominance, 4) restricted use of L1, and 5) L1 as a substratum, at
which stage L1 is dead. He mentions sudden language death due to
disease, genocide, or deliberate decision to switch languages, but
most language death is gradual, involving the factors discussed in the
models. He stresses that attitudes toward language are crucial.

Chapter 7 concentrates on language maintenance, particularly in
cases of the lesser of two unequal languages. It is common in Africa
for two (or more) languages to exist in a more or less state of equal
prestige. In this case, L1 and L2 speakers learn each others'
language, which B calls ''unmarked bilingualism.'' If L1 is more
dominant than L2, L2 is maintained only when people are able to
resist pressures, and the most important factor is their attitude toward
their own language. B gives a summary of a previous study of his
application of Auberger's ''proficiency resistance model.'' Lists of
factors by Blench and UNESCO are also given. Among these factors
is a written form of the language, something that is missing in many
African languages. B also discusses language revitalization, but gives
non-African examples such as Maori, since there has been virtually no
documentation of any African language being revitalized. He is not
optimistic about most African minority languages, since ''gains in the
prestige of minority languages are not a common phenomenon.''

Chapter 8 speaks of language empowerment. We have the label
of ''minority'' languages, though the sum total of ''minority'' language
speakers in a country is often a majority of the population. But they
are often disenfranchised from national life and discourse - the
powerless. Language empowerment measures are discussed here,
including specific language policies by governments, planning and
what is often more difficult, implementation of those plans. B singles
out Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa as having
explicit language policies, but these are not the norm in the continent.
There are ideological and technical issues to be dealt with, and B
gives a number of recommendations for government actions. He lists a
number of African initiatives of recent decades, most of which have
vanished, as well as listing a number of organizations that are
becoming quite interested in endangered languages recently.

B ends with three useful Appendices. The first lists the nationally and
areally dominant languages, country by country. The second, more
debatably, lists highly endangered, extinct, or nearly extinct languages
for each country. The third lists the number of dominant and minority
languages of Africa, also by country, concluding that of 2477 African
languages, 308 are highly endangered. A Language Index as well as
a Subject/Author Index are included.


This is an excellent introduction to the topic of endangered languages
in Africa. But beyond that, by referencing and summarizing much of
the theoretical literature on endangered languages, it actually serves
as a readable primer to the factors that make languages endangered
around the world and what can be done about them. Those who
would like more detailed and specific African case studies may want to
take a look at other works such as Brenzinger (1998).

B is occasionally uncritical of sources, as when he labels the
predictions of Michael Krauss that 90% of the world’s languages will
disappear by 2100 as ''statistics'' rather than speculation. He cites
Sapir and Whorf uncritically, whereas their views are a continual
source of debate. He also calls labialvelars as ''unique'' to Africa,
whereas they also occur in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and (rarely)
in South America as well. His book is understandably weighted by his
experience in Tanzania and Botswana, and would benefit especially
from more West African input. However, these are minor quibbles
compared to the overall value of the book.

Also, I believe there is reason to be somewhat more hopeful than
Batibo is about the survival of many African languages. With
orthographies being developed by groups such as NACALCO and
CABTAL in Cameroon, BTL in Kenya, SIL and Lutheran Bible
Translators in various countries, as well as by other groups, several
hundred languages are in the process of receiving orthographic
representations, literacy materials, and Bibles in their own language,
and a number of these are also getting dictionaries and grammars.
Besides the direct value of having literacy and other materials
available, the presence of these tends to raise the prestige of the
language in the speakers' minds, and their attitudes towards their own
languages become crucially more positive (as B himself notes in the
case of the Naro language). Still, it remains to be seen how much
these positive factors will be able to counteract the negative ones
against the survival of the minority languages of Africa.


Grimes, Barbara (ed.). 2000. Ethnologue: Languages of the World,
14th edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Brenzinger, M. (ed.) 1998. Endangered Languages in Africa. Köln:
Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Mike Cahill did on-site linguistic investigation in the Konni language of
northern Ghana for several years, including application to literacy and
translation work. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in
1999, and his primary research interests are in African phonology. He
was a member of the LSA Committee on Endangered Languages and
their Preservation from 2001-2003, chairing it the last year. He
currently serves as SIL's International Linguistics Coordinator.

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