Language as a Resource: an African Perspective. The Concept of Language as a Resource

Ambrose, M, J Read & V Webb (Compilers). 1998. Workshop papers: The
role of the African Languages in democratic South Africa. 5-6 Mar 1998.
Pretoria: University of Pretoria, CentRePoL

Language as a Resource: an African Perspective

Prof Ayo Bamgbose (University of Ibadan, Nigeria & University of Leipzig,

Language is a powerful symbol in society, but its potential is not fully
recognised. For example, outside the context of a national language, which is
supposed to facilitate communication and foster a sense of belonging among
the nationals of a country, it is not usual, for instance, for policy-makers to
consider language as a major instrument in national integration. However,
language has a wider role than this, and in order to demonstrate this quite
clearly, I have chosen as my topic for this lecture: “Language as a resource”.
Against the background of the experience in Africa, I intend to show that the
role of language in society and in nation-building cannot be narrowly limited to
its communicative function. The fact that all the nationals of a country speak
the same language is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for national
integration. A sense of belonging can only be fostered when other unityinducing
factors are already present in the polity (Kelman 1971:37-38). Such
factors include equity, justice, fair play in the management and distribution of
resources, respect for the rights of all groups, maximum opportunity for
participation in the system, and equal access by all groups to benefits deriving
from the state.
The Concept of “Language as a Resource”
The concept of “language as a resource” has been popularised in the
“planning” model of language planning in which language choices are made
on strictly economic grounds in much the same way as any other resources in
the nation’s economy are planned and consumed (Jernudd and Das Gupta
1971:195-196). It follows from this concept that language, like any other
commodity, is supposed to be subject to cost-benefit analysis in which the
cost of a language selected for a particular purpose can be measured in terms
of what could have been gained by the choice of another language for the
same purpose (Thorburn 1971:256). Such a cost can be calculated in macro
terms for the entire community or in micro terms for an individual language
user. For example, what does a country gain or lose by adopting an
indigenous language as opposed to an imported language as its national
language? For the individual, what sacrifice is someone prepared to make for
learning a language as measured against the rewards?
Ridler and Pons-Ridler (1986) argue that language, like any other commodity,
can be bought and sold. When treated as an investment, it is a potential asset
whose yield can be compared with other yields in a portfolio. When treated as
consumer goods, the decision to buy will depend on whether the benefits
derived from buying (e.g. pleasure, tourism, achievement, advancement, etc.)
outweigh the costs (e.g. tuition expenses, cost of study materials, time
invested, etc.). Foreign language acquisition therefore rests on the familiar
correlation between supply and demand: the lower the price, the greater the
quantity of language demanded, and if the price increases, there will be a
tendency to supply more.
It has been pointed out in the literature that there cannot be an exact fit
between language as a resource and other kinds of resources (see, for
example, Bamgbose 1987:7, Tollefson 1991:32, 36). Language is not a
resource like yam or rice that you can order more of at will. Similarly, while
one can predict the likely result of the substitution of cassava flour for yam
flour, the same can hardly be done for the substitution of a new word for an
existing one. The economic model assumes the freedom of the language
learner to make choices unfettered by other considerations. We know that
such freedom hardly exists, since there are built-in constraints, for example, in
the educational system, and in terms of access in the sociocultural and
political context. For many learners, the available language is not the one they
need; and hence they end up learning the language they can get rather than
the one they need. The fact is that language involves attitudes and behaviour
which may not necessarily conform to rational economic behaviour such as is
usually postulated for non-language resources.
In spite of the problems highlighted in the foregoing discussion, it is still
possible to talk of language as a resource in the dictionary sense of “a
valuable asset” or “a stock that can be drawn on”. And it is in this sense that
resource is coupled with language in the topic of this lecture. As this kind of
resource, language is seen as something useful both for the community and
the individual. Multilingualism will cease to be looked at as a problem rather
than an enrichment of the sociocultural life of a community, and acquiring
more than one language becomes something to be envied and sought after
rather than a necessary evil.
It is important to stress the positive attributes of these phenomena as
forcefully as possible because, until the colonial experience of central
administration through an imported official language, nothing was more
natural than for Africans to speak several different languages and to learn the
language of a neighbouring group whenever out-group interaction so
demands. If a lingua franca, such as Swahili, developed, it was mainly to
facilitate trade and not to suppress multilingualism. The obsession with a
monolingual polity is a latter-day development based on the alleged untidiness
and divisiveness of multilingualism. The fact that English is the world’s most
dominant language also means that many native speakers of English are
monolingual and can afford to be so. It is, therefore, commonplace to see
even otherwise knowledgeable people in Britain and America (including
linguists) being shocked when they hear the claim that Nigeria has about four
hundred languages! We cannot afford to continue to propagate and
perpetuate the myth that monolingualism is a virtue and multilingualism is a
bane. Instead, we need to stress that bilingualism is a virtue and
multilingualism opens up opportunities as well as challenges for sociocultural
development. The implication of this positive attitude to multilingualism will
become clearer later in the context of language policy and planning.
Uses and Abuses of Language
The most commonly cited function of language is its use as a means of
communication. This function is certainly important for it makes social
interaction possible as well as encoding and retrieval of information. The
ability to communicate in a patterned, systematic and complex manner
separates humans from other animal species. However, an equally important
function of language is its use as a bond in a speech community. This entails
sentimental attachment such that sharing the same language tends to
reinforce this bond. No doubt, it is this function of language that encourages
the sentiment that a nation needs a common language for unity and national
integration. The solidarity function of language is easily observed in our
patterns of language choice even in formal settings. How often, for instance,
have you or your interlocutor burst into your shared first language in an office?
An intimate relationship tends to override all other considerations; and this is
the finding of Adekunle (1978:125) who observes that in language choice in
multilingual situations in Nigeria, interlocutors in intimate personal relationship
choose their mother tongue (or even a dialect of it) 80 – 100 per cent of the
time, irrespective of setting and topic. If, of course, the topic is such that
technical vocabulary is unavoidable, the option of a recourse to code-mixing is
always available.
The solidarity function of language may be considered disconcerting,
especially by foreigners in Africa. It is usually considered impolite to lapse into
a language that excludes other people when in a situation in which the
interlocutors do not have one language in common. Unfortunately, quite often
in that situation, the common language is usually the official language (i.e.
English, French or Portuguese). Thus, the convention dictated by politeness
puts the African interlocutor at a permanent disadvantage, since it is always
he or she who has to make an adjustment in the direction of the interlocutor’s
language. What then tends to happen is that, quite often, politeness is made
to give way to solidarity. In a multilingual context involving different African
languages, I doubt if there is even any concession at all to the convention of a
common medium. Situations such as a couple talking in the presence of
guests, a relation entering the office of a Head of Department, a telephone
discussion while other persons are sitting in the room, etc. hardly ever evoke
any feeling of impoliteness among most Africans. I have stressed the
solidarity function of language because it is an indication of pride in our
languages. In the face of the dominance of imported official languages, the
conventional wisdom is to claim that these official languages are in the
process of displacing the indigenous languages. The fact that this does not
appear to be true of the solidarity function in the spoken medium is a
significant phenomenon.
It must be conceded that inherent in solidarity is exclusion. When exclusion
arises for purely communicational reasons, it is likely to be accepted. When,
however, it becomes institutionalised to the extent that language becomes a
badge of ethnic solidarity and a barrier to inter-ethnic association, it results in
a threat to national cohesion and integration. At this point, however, I would
like to take a look at prejudice, especially as it manifests itself in language.
Language Prejudice
Prejudice is a general human trait and language prejudice is only one of its
manifestations. According to Cooper and McGaugh (1963), as quoted in
Ehrlich (1973:3), “Prejudices are social attitudes which are developed before,
in lieu of, or despite objective evidence”. Although studies of prejudice have
generally concentrated on racial prejudice, what is true of racial prejudice is
also true of other prejudices. They thrive on preconceived notions which are
largely socially learnt and hardly ever questioned.
Language prejudice manifests itself in three major ways. First, in popular
notions held about language. For example, that some languages are primitive
or refined, or that some accents are unpleasant, harsh or melodious. Second,
in arbitrary value judgements on speakers of certain languages based solely
on the language or their mode of speaking. In one of the earliest studies of
this type of prejudice, Lambert (1967) used the now popular matched guise
technique which involves subjects judging recordings by bilinguals in English
and French, without knowing that it is identical subjects using the two
languages that are involved in the experiment. The arbitrary nature of the
judgements is shown by the fact that the subjects reacted more favourably to
speakers in their English guises than to the same speakers in their French
guises. Third, prejudice can be shown in the way speakers of certain
languages are discriminated against or excluded from participation in certain
functions or roles.
Although prejudice need not result in discrimination, the fact is that it
frequently does. In the case of language, such discrimination may be subtle,
as where a group refuses to acknowledge the similarity of its language with
that of another group. An example of this, reported by Wolff (1964), is that of
the Nembe and Kalabari in the Rivers State of Nigeria. Although the Nembe
accept that they can understand the Kalabari when they speak, the Kalabari
deny any such intelligibility nor indeed any similarity between the two
languages. This is because they consider themselves to be superior to the
Nembe. Discrimination may be more directly expressed in exclusion which
may take such forms as literacy requirements (for example for voting),
unreasonable language requirements unrelated to job or position,
stigmatisation of language or dialect (for example, in schools and job
interviews), neglect of immigrants’ language, and language proscription.
Allport (1954:14-15, 49) has a five-point “scale of intensity” in which
discrimination is only the middle point. First, one talks about or against the
target groups of the prejudice. Next, one avoids them. Then, one
discriminates against them, and, if the feeling is more intense, one employs
physical attack, and finally, as an extreme measure, one exterminates them.
Fortunately, language prejudice does not usually go beyond discrimination.
No doubt, there have been instances of language riots in response to
language policies (for example in India, Sri Lanka, and, nearer home, in
Soweto (South Africa) in 1976), but, in modern times, it is unusual to have
anything like the barefaced massacre in the biblical story (Judges 12:4-6) in
which the pronunciation of the word shibboleth was used to differentiate two
communities: the sh-pronouncing people of Gilead and the s-pronouncing
people of Ephraim. Even if any Ephraimite attempts to pass himself or herself
off as a member of the Gilead group, the pronunciation test was applied to
identify his or her true identity, which was swiftly followed by execution. The
nearest thing to this in Nigeria that I can think of concerns some outrageous
incidents during the civil war of 1966-1971 when Federal soldiers stationed at
roadblocks used the r/l test to distinguish so-called fleeing “rebels” from other
residents. If, when asked to say /tóró/ “three pence”, all they could manage to
say was /tóló/, they were immediately arrested or even brutally assaulted.
Language prejudice is of two types: positive and negative. Positive language
prejudice is one that enhances someone’s self-image or denigrates the image
of others. When people proclaim the excellence of their own way of speaking
or condemn other people’s accent or language variety, what they are engaged
in, from their perspective, is positive prejudice. Negative prejudice, on the
other hand, is image effacing. It is characterised by negative evaluation of
one’s own language or speech patterns and a preference for someone else’s.
An example of this kind of self-denigration is the case of David Christian, the
Nama chief in Namibia, who, in response to the Dutch missionaries’ attempt to
open schools that would conduct their teaching using Nama as the medium of
instruction, is reported to have shouted, “Only Dutch, Dutch only! I despise
myself and I want to hide in the bush, when I am speaking my Hottentot
language” (Vedder 1981:275 as quoted in Ohly 1992:65). I am sure such
negative prejudice still persists in present-day African attitudes. For instance,
the enormous prestige that official languages such as English and French
enjoy in African countries today is due not only to their utility in education,
securing good jobs and advancement, but also to negative prejudice on the
part of many Africans who prefer such languages to their own languages.
In South Africa, the reason for the preference for English is not entirely due to
its utilitarian value. Because of the association of Afrikaans with apartheid,
and language educational policies that sought to entrench the language as a
medium of instruction along with English in upper primary and secondary
schools, the so-called “dual medium policy”, (Hartshorne 1995:311, NEPI
1992:28), there was negative reaction to Afrikaans and a favourable
disposition towards English. This reaction appears to have been based on the
principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The irony of the situation is
that English, which was itself a colonial language, has ended up being
admired and held out as “a language of unification and even of liberation”
(Alexander 1989:56), the “language of freedom” (De Kadt 1991:7), “the
vehicle for ideologies of freedom and independence” (Heugh 1987:206) as
quoted in De Kadt 1991:8), “the symbol of liberal values and liberation” (Webb
1991:4). This attitude is complemented by a negative prejudice to African
languages, which has arisen from the policy of extending mother tongue
medium beyond Standard 2 in primary schools (Hartshorne 1995:311). Thus,
taken in conjunction with the Afrikaans medium policy, the mother-tonguemedium
policy was seen as a measure that “denies blacks access to English
and therefore to power, and thus contributed to keeping the black population
subordinate” (Webb 1991:4). That such a negative attitude to African
languages continues to exist is one of the major challenges to educational
language planning in the South African Republic.
The significance of the foregoing is that language prejudice and discrimination
as well as ethnic exploitation and abuse of language differences are
antithetical to national integration. It is very easy for language policies to be
seen in terms of language prejudice, especially in multilingual situations where
there is one or more than one dominant language, co-existing with several
small-group (otherwise known as “minority”) languages. I am on record as
saying that there is no way one can avoid some advantage being conferred by
numbers. In any language policy, a language spoken by 10 million speakers is
most likely to have a greater role than one spoken by half a million speakers.
However, to say that is not to advocate the neglect of smaller languages,
since the combined force of all such languages in a given country may be
quite considerable. What is important to stress is that all languages will have
an appropriate role in a comprehensive language policy, but these roles need
not be identical.
We need to constantly remember that it is an accident of birth that one person
belongs to a major language group while another belongs to a smaller one,
and no one should be penalised for this. Nigeria’s language policy provides an
example of an attempt to give equitable roles for different languages.
However, this policy, which is based on three tiers of population-determined
categories of languages, (i.e. three major languages at the national level,
several medium languages at the state level, and hundreds of smaller
languages at the local and community levels), has been subjected to
increasing criticism. (See papers by some contributors to Emenanjo 1990). It
is my view that the policy is essentially correct, but its implementation has left
much to be desired and, in fact, made nonsense of the aspects which may be
considered favourable to both the major and non-major languages. Equity
demands that speakers of small group languages should not be placed at any
serious disadvantage, while speakers of major languages should not, for that
very reason, be made to feel superior. This is precisely the point of the
requirement in Nigeria’s language educational policy to the effect that all
secondary school children should learn a major Nigerian language other than
their own language. Unfortunately, factors such as dearth of qualified
teachers, lack of commitment, and the granting of waivers have rendered this
provision in the policy ineffectual.
Ensuring equity for languages is not restricted to the so-called minority
languages. There are African languages spoken by large majorities but which
are dominated by the more powerful imported European languages. All the
African languages in South Africa, including Zulu, which has more speakers
than either English or Afrikaans (Webb 1996:143, 144), fall into the category
of dominated languages. What can be done to redress the imbalance?
Clearly, use in a wider range of domains, compulsory requirement for certain
jobs and positions, use for transaction of certain types of official business, and
a higher profile in political discourse are some possible remedial measures. In
the Richard Turner Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Natal on 19
September, 1991, Dr. Elizabeth de Kadt challenged her audience by asking,
“Should a certain fluency in, say, Zulu, not in due course come to be expected
of academics on the Natal seaboard?” (De Kadt 1991:14). Webb (1996:152)
even goes further to suggest a compensatory affirmative action. Since, he
argues, many members of the black community are already multiply bilingual
in up to five languages, all members of the other groups “should be compelled
to attain effective competence in selected [African] languages”! It is doubtful if
exhortation will work where acquisition of a language is not linked to specific
requirements or perceived advantages. Even compulsion too will work only in
so far as it affects the target group. For instance, only those seeking
admission to colleges or looking for jobs will be affected by an African
language requirement for such admissions or jobs. Others will be left out.
However, to the extent that it forces some people to take the acquisition of an
African language seriously, it may have a psychological effect on the
community as a whole.
Endangered Languages
The question of small group languages immediately raises the issue of
endangered languages. If the so-called minority languages are ignored or not
given a proper role in a country’s language policy, what are the implications of
this for speakers of these languages and their culture? Here, one is not just
talking of language rights but of the need for a group to maintain its culture
and its language, if it so desires. Increasingly, attention is now being paid to
endangered languages. The Permanent International Committee of Linguists
(CIPL) is sponsoring a project on Endangered Languages and it has obtained
UNESCO support for this project. Its resolution approved by the General
Assembly at the 15th International Congress of Linguists in Quebec in August
1992 reads:
As the disappearance of any one language constitutes an irretrievable
loss to mankind, it is for UNESCO a task of great urgency to respond
to this situation by promoting and, if possible, sponsoring programs of
linguistic organisations for the description – in the form of grammars,
dictionaries and texts including the recording of oral literatures – of
hitherto unstudied or inadequately documented endangered and dying
The West African Linguistic Society founded in 1965 and its predecessor, the
West African Languages Survey founded in 1960, may justifiably take some
pride in claiming that this is what they have been doing all along, encouraging
fieldwork for the collection of language data and oral literature, and providing
avenues for publishing such material in The Journal of West African
Languages and the two-volume Data Sheets, and as major analytic
descriptions in the West African Language Monographs. However, the
significant aspect of this new development is that the linguistic world has
finally woken up to the value of practical non-theory-driven language research.
Such research is no longer the concern of anthropological or Africanist
linguists alone, but it is a task for all linguists who are conscious of the
implications of disappearing languages. I believe we have good justification
for commending all those linguists who have not neglected fieldwork and
practical language research, particularly the Summer Institute of Linguistics,
for the pioneering work so far done on orthographies, literacy manuals, and
texts in many African languages.
It is understandable that linguists will want to concern themselves with
linguistic description and collection of texts in disappearing languages. In a
way, given financial support, this is the least controversial activity that we can
engage in, since doing it does not have any political overtones. But suppose
all these materials are collected and the language is no longer spoken by
anyone? The inevitable result is that language death will result all the same.
One of the ways of ensuring that a language does not die is to have it
transmitted to the younger generation. This is best done by making it possible
for initial literacy to be acquired in the language. If this is done, materials
prepared in the language will not be consigned to the archives, but actively
used. This is where the responsibility of governments arises. A worthwhile
language policy must provide for the use of small-group languages in
education, not only in adult literacy but also in initial literacy.
It should be clear from the foregoing that my definition of endangerment is not
limited to numbers. In fact, use is far more important. What use is a language,
small or big, if it is not used? From this standpoint, endangered languages in
fact belong to a continuum at one end of which are dying languages, and at
the other end, deprived or disadvantaged languages. In between the two
extremes are the endangered languages proper. A deprived language has the
highest status in that it is used in formal education and as a means of
communication beyond its immediate community. However, to the extent that
it is subordinated to an imported official language, which is used in wider
administrative and educational domains, it may be said to be disadvantaged.
An endangered language on the other hand, is not used in formal education,
and its communicative function is limited to the in-group and for such
purposes as rituals, festivals, village affairs and informal contacts. In contrast
to these two types of language, a dying language is not used in any serious
function, and its continuing relevance is that there are some old people who
can still speak the language, but the occasions for such use are becoming
rare because there are fewer interlocutors to interact with. (Bamgbose 1993).
Those who espouse the cause of endangered and small group languages
must be aware that not every one believes that such languages are worth
preserving. For Mackey (1984:43), “There is hardly a sovereign state on earth
that does not contain a language minority;..Yet although of equal potential, the
languages of all these minorities are not of equal value. All languages are
equal only before God and the linguist”. For Weinstein (1983:138),
“Languages have the right to die and to retreat from the public domain; and
individuals who demand scarce resources to publish, teach, and revive all
languages in the name of human rights threaten the cohesion of the national
community, the ultimate guarantor of those rights”. One thing is clear to me:
Only those who do not belong to minority language groups are quick in
advocating a suppression of the so-called minority languages. Whenever I am
asked whether I support the promotion of a so-called minority language, my
answer is positive, but it is always qualified by a proviso: Yes, provided the
community of speakers desires it. I do not subscribe to doctrinaire and
abstract language rights. If linguistic preservation does not encourage
revitalisation, if there are strong factors towards language shift, and if the
speakers have lost interest in preserving their language and are willing to
adopt a language of the immediate community in its place, there is nothing
that a linguist, or anyone for that matter, can do to keep such a language
Indigenous versus Imported Languages
It is virtually impossible to talk of the role of language in post-colonial Africa
without mentioning the role of the imported and erstwhile colonial languages
such as English, French and Portuguese. These languages have held a
dominant position as official languages – a role which has largely been
continued in the post-colonial period. The effects of this continued dominance
can be seen in alienation resulting in unfavourable attitudes to African
languages. These attitudes may be illustrated in the preference for early
acquisition of these languages (with two-year-olds being made to speak
English or French in elite homes), taking pride in proficiency in the imported
languages at the expense of a sound knowledge of one’s own mother tongue,
preference for written communication in a European language, addiction to
information disseminated in imported languages by electronic and print media,
and lack of interest in, and concern for, the development of indigenous
If the effect of the dominance of English and other imported languages is
limited to the neglect of the indigenous languages and does not extend to
more serious repercussions on the society itself, we would have been talking
of one major problem alone; but the fact is that there is a far more serious
problem: competence in the imported languages which have assumed such a
major dimension in our national life is entirely uneven. Prah (1995:41) in
reporting on the situation in Mozambique provides the information that only
1.2 per cent of the population speaks Portuguese as a first language. With a
further 23.2 per cent being bilingual in Portuguese and one or more African
languages, we are left with a total of 24.2 per cent of the population (found in
predominantly urban areas) who can claim to be Portuguese-speaking.
Machungo and Matusse (1989:135), as cited in Prah (1995:41), state that
a great number of Mozambican children come into contact with the
Portuguese language for the first time in primary school….the
community in which they live does not use Portuguese, has little
access to audio-visual media or Portuguese texts and the linguistic
and pedagogical competence of our teachers needs development. As
a result, Mozambique suffers form a high incidence of academic
The situation depicted in respect of Mozambique is true of most African
countries. The imported official and dominant language is only effectively
controlled by a minority, which, by virtue of this control, also has access to
political and economic power. The society is bifurcated into those that have
language power and those that do not, with this division corresponding
roughly to literate/illiterate, urban/rural, rich/poor, educated/uneducated,
developed/backward. Struck by the inequality characterised by this language
power, Tollefson (1991:84) comments as follows:
Most colonial and post-colonial societies are characterised by a dual
system, i.e. two sets of institutions, separate from one another, but
linked in important ways. These two sets of institutions include a
“developed” (“Westernised”, “industrialised”) sector, and an
“underdeveloped” (“pre-industrial”, “traditional”) sector. Because these
sectors differ widely in their wealth and income, migration occurs from
rural “underdeveloped” areas to urban “developed” areas. Migration
does not diminish the effects of dualism, however, as much of the
urban population may live in slums geographically separated from
“modern”, “Western” “centres.
Although there may be underlying historical, socio-economic and political
causes for the division, Tollefson (1991:84-85) also correctly points out that
difference in language behaviour may help to reinforce or even serve to define
membership of the two segments of society.
Two other aspects of the Mozambican situation also deserve to be noted, as
they are typical of many Sub-Saharan African countries. The teaching
medium, even from the first day at school in the case of some countries, is a
language that is totally foreign to the child and in which there is hardly any
reinforcement outside the classroom. The competence of those called upon to
teach the language may even be suspect. The result is that failure in the
system occurs, and this is often blamed on the children (they are unfairly
maligned as “unintelligent”, “indolent”, “playful”, “inattentive”, etc.). Until there
is a realisation that the language of the home has to find a place in the
classroom, even if it is only as a transitional measure to minimise the burden
of instruction in a foreign medium, the failure in the educational system will
continue unabated.
The emphasis on the need for African languages must not be taken to mean
that imported languages such as English and French do not have an
important role to play in post-colonial African countries. By the accident of
history, these languages have become part of the heritage of the countries
concerned. For example, African literature in English constitutes a major
contribution to contemporary literature in English. The wealth of knowledge
available in English in most fields of knowledge will make its use in tertiary
education and international communication virtually mandatory. What is being
advocated is that the role of the imported languages should be re-defined in
such a way as to make them complementary to the indigenous languages.
Literacy in an African language should open more doors for the citizenry.
Even oral command of many African languages should make it possible for
citizens to receive information and participate in social, political and economic
activities in the nation. This immediately raises the question of language in
development, which is often erroneously linked to a greater use of the socalled
languages of wider communication, such as English or French. The fact
is that if development is to be meaningful, there is no way in which it can be
carried out in a language which excludes the majority of the people in the
society. This, then, is one of the most important justifications for putting
greater emphasis on the need for the use and development of a country’s
indigenous languages.
Language Policy and Language Planning
It should be clear from the preceding discussion that the language situation in
most African countries south of the Sahara is extremely complex. The most
significant characteristic is multilingualism, which throws up such issues as:
Which languages are to be regarded as “major” as opposed to “small-group”
(or “minority”) languages? Should the imported official languages continue in
their current roles? If not, what roles should be assigned to them vis-à-vis the
indigenous languages? What should be the language(s) of national
communication? Which language or languages should be declared as the
national language(s)? How many languages will a citizen be encouraged to
acquire and which? How should this requirement be reflected in the
educational system? Are there languages spoken across the country’s
borders and, if so, how are the potentials of such languages to be exploited in
collaboration with neighbouring countries? These issues immediately bring up
the question of language policy and, by implication, language planning as
Although most multilingual African countries are aware that there is need to
tackle some of the issues outlined above, very few of them have a wellarticulated
and consistent language policy. Apart from the mistaken notion
that language problems are not urgent and that failure to tackle them will not
result in any major dislocation in the society, the approach to language policy
is characterised by several undesirable features such as avoidance of policymaking,
vagueness of formulation, arbitrariness, inconsistency and fluctuation,
and declaration of policy without any serious intention of implementation
(Bamgbose 1991:111). The effect of all this on language policy-making is that
policy statements are often ad hoc and not taken seriously either by those
who make them or by those for whom the policies are intended. It follows that
implementation is bound to be weak or even non-existent and failure in
outcome is predictable.
Language planning in African countries is in need of reform in a number of
ways: First, it should go beyond policy formulation to include detailed
implementation strategies. Second, it should be made less arbitrary with
decisions informed by relevant fact-finding. Third, input into policy decisions
should come from a wide range of interests, including expert opinion and the
attitudes of those for whom the policies are intended. Fourth, the scope of
language planning should include all public domains of language use and not
confined to educational language policy alone. Fifth, the ultimate aim of any
social planning, which is the public good, should always be kept in view so
that policies will not be such as to unfairly benefit a tiny elite to the detriment
of the larger segment of the society.
In agreeing that language is a resource, it is important not to lose sight of the
distribution of this resource, particularly in terms of size, geographical spread,
numbers, prestige, and development status. It is up to humanity to reduce the
burden of this unevenness by a series of measures, such as expansion of
domains of language use, language development, preservation of endangered
languages, eradication of illiteracy, bilingual education, and introduction of
effective language policy and planning strategies. This is the challenge before
African nations and their success in facing the challenge will, to a large extent,
determine their readiness to move forward into the world of tomorrow.
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