A continent of tongues


About a third of all languages known today are spoken in Africa. A handful dominate and a few more are thriving, but a great many face an uncertain future, extinction even. This is a serious issue as it is acknowledged that languages are vital not only in the preserving and developing collective heritage, but also for the foundations of education. Moreover there is a strong link between language loss and threats to biological diversity.

Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic and a handful of other languages may dominate the global linguistic stakes, but there are thousands of other languages, 6,500 in fact, that are also spoken in the world today. Some are robust with native speakers numbering in their millions. But not all are thriving – about 2,000 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

Africa- the most linguistically diverse continent in the world.

So how does African language diversity fare in this polyglot world. Impressively so it transpires, for some 2,000 are spoken among the 1,1 billion people who call this continent their home. It is, in fact, the most linguistically diverse continent in the world.

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by UNESCO in November 1999 and has been celebrated every year since to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. The date, 21 February, was chosen because on that day in 1952 students in Dhaka, in what is now Bangladesh, were tragically shot and killed by police during a demonstration supporting the recognition of Bangla, also known as Bengali. Bangla is now the sole national language of Bangladesh and is the lingua franca of more than 150 million people.

Again, as in the global context, a few dominate. English (700 million), Arabic (100 million) and French (90 million) are the most widely spoken world languages in Africa, both as native tongues and as second languages. Also, Amharic, which after Arabic is the most spoken Semitic language in the world, has some 19 million African speakers.

Some thriving – most are not

Festival of the Nomads, near Timbuktu, Mali. Music concerts are an important conduit for promoting the endangered cultures and languages of Africa. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Some of the indigenous Africa languages are robust and thriving. KiSwahili, for example, has some 100 million speakers mostly in East Africa, Hausa is spoken by more than 50 million people in Western, Northern and Central Africa, while Oromo is the Cushitic language of some 30 million in the Horn of Africa and its surrounds. Yoruba (30 million) and Igbo (24 million) are spoken widely in West Africa. Zulu, which must surely rank as one of the most famous of the African languages, is the mother tongue of about 10 – 11 million people in South Africa.

Language diversity – a reservoir of culture.

Language diversity is one of Africa’s most essential intellectual treasures. However, as pointed out by the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDI), by far the majority of the approximately 2,000 languages on the continent are only spoken by small communities of a few hundred people.

Tragically, many of these languages are no longer spoken by children and are therefore certain to vanish. Languages such as Bodo in the Central African Republic only had 15 speakers left in 1996, while in a 1994 survey Elmolo, A language of people living along the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya’s north west had only eight speakers. In South Africa, too, the threats to linguistic diversity are felt: three languages, Korana, Xiri and N|u, are critically endangered.

“The death of a language is like the burning of a library.”

Professor Okoth Okombo, professor of Linguistics and Communication Studies at the University of Nairobi, says that “Language is like a reservoir of culture. Most of the cultural wealth of a community is stored in its language: their philosophy of life, their stories, their medicinal practices … The death of a language is like the burning of a library.”

The importance of mother tongue instruction

In education, mother tongue instruction, particularly in the formative years of schooling, is of utmost importance. Not only does this give greater access to learning for young children but it is of particular importance for communities that speak minority and indigenous languages. Mother tongue instruction allows the emphasis in teaching to focus on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation.

Loss of language; loss of biodiversity – a clear link

It accepted that the degradation of the natural environment goes hand in hand with a loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. Put another way, indigenous language loss impacts negatively biodiversity conservation.

Ruwenzori Mountains on the border between The DRC and Uganda. The montane forests of Africa are a world biodiversity hotspot. Languages are also diverse: Uganda, a small country has no fewer than 40 living languages, while in DRC there are more than 200. The link between biological diversity and linguistic diversity is important in the conservation of both. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

This fundamental link between language/traditional knowledge and biodiversity is far from just supposition. UNESCO explains it well: “Local and indigenous communities have elaborate complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting a deep understanding of their local environment. This environmental knowledge is embedded in indigenous names, oral traditions and taxonomies, and can be lost when a community shifts to another language.”

More than 3,000 languages, nearly half of those on Earth, are found in the 35 regions regarded as the planet’s most significant biodiversity hotspots.

The safeguarding of traditional knowledge and the native languages used to transmit such knowledge are, as a yet, underused but potentially powerful tools for conservation and biodiversity. Considering that more than 3,000 languages, nearly half of those on Earth, are found in the 35 regions regarded as the planet’s most significant biodiversity hotspots, the importance of this thinking is irrefutable.

Scientists are increasingly taking this to heart, recognising that indigenous names, folk taxonomies and oral traditions are a vital part of conservation efforts related to endangered species protection and the restoration of compromised landscapes.

Discover more about the languages of the world. Visit Enthnologue.



About Author

Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more

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