From: Josef Schmied

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III. Language

22. Josef Schmied, The Colonial Inheritance (1991)

From: Josef Schmied, English in Africa: An Introduction (Burnt Mill, Harlow: Longman, 1991), 6-22. – While the presence of English in Africa goes back to the mid-16th century, colonial language policies with regard to utilizing and teaching English in Britain’s African colonies only emerged in the 19th century. In the first chapter of his authoritative study, Josef Schmied, a renowned linguist who has published widely on English in Africa, provides a succinct overview of British language policies in Africa and their legacies for the postcolonial present.

When the British were finally drawn into the ‘scramble for Africa,’ which took place in the early 1880s and ended with the partition of Africa among the Euro­pean imperial powers at the Berlin conference in 1884, formal imperial rule was established in all territories. This meant, of course, that an English-speaking super­structure was imposed with appropriate administrative, legal and educational sub­structures.

The administrative, legal and educational language in the British African col­onies, protectorates and dependencies was English; but to a certain extent African languages were also used officially, and at times even encouraged, at the lower levels. The relationship between English language expansion and British imperial­ism was not, however, a straightforward one. On the one hand British colonial officers had to learn African languages before they went to Africa, and their sub­sequent promotion depended to some degree on passing African language tests.1 On the other hand even non-British missions often started English classes either because they wanted to obtain special government grants that were only available for English-medium education or because they wanted to cater for Africans who wanted to ‘complete’ their education.

From an African perspective English had some advantages. People soon real­ized the usefulness of English for economic advancement, and saw English as being synonymous with education in general. This position, that Africans willingly took to English, is not undisputed however. There is a school of thought that argues that English was imposed on Africans, for example through a system of ‘certification.’ English, according to Omolewa (1975), was not really made com­pulsory, but to obtain government employment Africans had to have a certificate – and in order to obtain a certificate a candidate was expected to be reasonably proficient in English.2

The colonial perspective is reflected in the report of a commission sponsored by the Phelps-Stokes Fund, based on a visit by the commission to West Africa in 1921 and to Central and East Africa in 1925/25. The report neatly summarizes the aspects deciding the issue of languages in education […]:


1. The tribal language should be used in the lower elementary standards or grades.

2. A lingua franca of African origin should be introduced in the middle classes of the school if the area is occupied by large Native groups speaking diverse languages.

3. The language of the European nation in control should be taught in the upper standards.3

These principles remained more or less the same in most parts of British Africa during the whole of imperial rule, but the weight given to them changed, causing modifications from more paternalistic to more assimilationist approaches in dif­ferent territories and by different colonial governments. The better integration of the African perspective, or what the colonizers saw as that, is reflected in general development theory as well as in language policy […]. After the First World War, Lord Lugard, Britain’s most influential African administrator, developed his Dual Mandate, which implied that the colonial powers had an obligation, not merely to govern justly, but also to promote the colonial peoples economically and politi­cally.4 The combination of African languages for the lower ranks and English for the higher ones also reflects the Dual Mandate. On the whole the British were by no means completely pro-English in their language policies, which were admit­tedly rather ad hoc and sometimes inconsistent.

For a long time British administrations in Africa did not want to invest much money in the education of Africans. It was thus left to ‘voluntary agents,’ and therefore the influence of the missions on language in education was very signifi­cant. In consequence missionary language policies, which were often more con­sistent than those of the colonial administrations, came into being. Generally speaking, Protestants tended, in accordance with their tradition since the Refor­mation, to favour African mother tongues in church and school, while Catholics favoured the European language, if there was no major African language or lingua franca available.5 [...]

After the Second World War, which had shown the logistic value and econo­mic possibilities of African colonies, and after the independence of India (in 1947), it became clear to the British that self-government (within the framework of the Commonwealth) would one day also come to Africa. And although they thought, despite growing African resistance, that it might still take half a century, they started putting their African colonies on the path towards modernization. Although this strategy was obviously aimed at securing British political and eco­nomic influence, it gave African countries a boost towards development. Besides extensive agricultural and industrial schemes an expansion of educational systems began. Whereas before the war generally apathetic colonial governments managed to provide two to four years of schooling for perhaps a quarter of their young citizens,6 now secondary schools were expanded and a few universities founded: University College of the Gold Coast for what became Ghana, Ibadan for Nigeria and Makerere in Uganda for East Africa. The English language was considered a key factor in this strategy, as can be seen from the following document:

116. English is important to Africans for three main reasons; as a lingua franca; as a road to the technical knowledge of modern inventions; and a means of contact with world thought.

117. The movement of population and rapid improvement of communications is bringing together people from scattered regions of Africa, so that Swahili (or another major African language, for that matter) no longer has a wide enough spread to be a useful lingua franca, even in East Africa. As the territories develop closer associations the need for English will steadily increase.

118. Africans are avid to secure the technical knowledge and skill which will, they hope, raise them out of poverty and the ever-present fear of drought and famine, and they know that this knowledge in any amount is only available to the man who can read English. Every week new links are forged through trade with the outside world and so the utilitarian reasons for learning English grow stronger.

119. The knowledge of English introduces the reader to the vast storehouse of English literature and indeed of world literature, for more foreign books have been translated into English than any other language. Now broadcasting and films penetrate into the remotest parts and can only be fully enjoyed by those who understand English.7

The British post-war policy of modernization was more than ever before con­ceived and implemented through the medium of English. Since English was straightforwardly equated with modernization it gained enormous prestige. More and more Africans themselves demanded as much English as possible, or peti­tioned for ‘English as early as possible’ in schools. Now the same disputes be­tween ‘orientalists’ and ‘modernizers’ or ‘anglicists’ in educational administration took place as in India (where they had been fought for almost a century since Macaulay’s famous minute).8 When African politicians (who had already started to form political organizations like the African National Congress in South Africa in 1912 and the West African National Congress in 1918) joined in this demand for English, as part of their campaign for equal education for Africans, and the aboli­tion of separate education for Europeans, Indians and Africans, they had a second motive, too: for them English was also the language of emancipation and libera­tion.

The great African leaders like Nkrumah, Nyerere and Kaunda found support for their liberationist ideas from European socialists and philosophers, and began to use the colonizers’ legacy against the colonizers themselves. They adopted the English language because they also needed it to criticize and attack their rulers in international contexts. […]

It is not surprising therefore that the newly independent African Governments continued on their modernizing English-dominated path at least for the first few years after their independence in the early 1960s.9 Under these conditions it may be less surprising that some commissions even considered whether “literacy in English should be the immediate goal, rather than a subsequent goal after literacy has been achieved in a vernacular”.10 Although African poli­ticians owed part of their success to the African languages which had been used in ‘grass-root politics’ to mobilize the masses, they did not replace the colonial lan­guage at the same time as the colonial system. In fact, the English language proved far more durable than other parts of the inheritance (e.g. the Westminster model of government was soon given up in favour of a one-party system or even military rule in most Afri­can Commonwealth states).

Since the time most African colonies gained independence the status of the English language has not drastically changed […]. Despite the withdrawal of the British colonial administration the English language was retained as a kind of oil which kept the administrative, military, political, legal and educational systems running smoothly when the switchboards of power were handed over. It goes without saying that this state of affairs caused controversy in some of the new nations. Sometimes conscious and determined language policies have been used to weaken or strengthen the position of English […] and such attempts are likely to continue. A few general reasons why this part of the colonial inheritance has been so largely retained must suffice here.

For purely pragmatic reasons it was much easier for the government machinery to maintain the linguistic status quo and concentrate on more immediate and acute issues. Whereas after independence many African nations embarked on ambitious modernization programmes, today they are so absorbed in day-to-day problems that they have neither the energy nor the means to attempt fundamental changes in the sociolinguistic situation.

For pure reasons of national cohesion many governments have so far not cho­sen to use indigenous languages with sub-national ethnic affiliations in a national context, in case this endangers the ethnic equilibrium within the nation. Whereas this is a question of political feasibility in multiethnic nations (e.g. Nigeria or even Gambia), it is one of economic feasibility in smaller nations with their internation­al dependency (e.g. Malawi or Lesotho). Few countries, apart from Tanzania, where Swahili is seen as a supra-ethnic lingua franca, or Somalia, which is excep­tional in being a state with only a single ethnic and linguistic group with strong national feelings, were in a position to use an African language as a national means of communication; most preferred to rely on other symbols to demonstrate their Africanness and intensify national unity.

For international purposes English has become more, not less, important since colonial times, and this is not only because the influence of the British as the lead­ing world power has in many ways been replaced by that of the Americans. Al­though for many Africans the feelings about English may subjectively be very mixed, it is an objective necessity for discussing national problems and expressing national points of view in pan-African and international forums (such as OAU or UNO) and for claiming a fair share of international communication processes, be it in the political, economic, or technological fields. [14-21]

23. Lord Charles Somerset, Proclamation (1822)

From: The Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser, Vol. XVII, Saturday, July 6th, 1822, No. 860: 1. – Somerset was governor of the Cape from 1814 to 1826. An important feature of British imperial administration and control in South Africa was to impose the sole use of the Eng­lish language. The Cape was no exception. In the present document Somerset outlines the three-stage process which would lead over a five-year period to the exclusive use of English. This measure should be considered in the light of estimates according to which at the time only one in eight residents of the colony could actually speak Eng­lish. The Proclamation may also be regarded as the first official step towards establish­ing the hegemony of English over Dutch and as the first spur to the later creation of the Afrikaans language movement.


By His Excellency, the Right Hon. General Lord CHARLES HENRY SOMER­SET, one of His Majesty’s11 Most Honourable Privy Council, Colonel of His Majesty’s 1st West India Regiment, Governor and Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Castle, Town, and Settlement of the Cape of Good Hope, in South Afri­ca, and of the Territories and Dependencies thereof, and Ordinary12 and Vice Admiral of the same, Commander of the Forces, &c.&c.&c.

WHEREAS it has been deemed expedient, with a view to the prosperity of this Settlement, that the Language of the Parent Country should be more univer­sally diffused, and that a period should be now fixed, at which the English Lan­guage shall be exclusively used in all judicial and official Acts, Proceedings and Business within the same. The long and familiar intercourse which has happily taken place between the good Inhabitants of this Colony,13 and the very numerous British-born Subjects, who have established themselves, or have been settled here, has already greatly facilitated a measure, which is likely still more closely to unite the loyal Subjects of their common Sovereign. The system, which I had previously adopted, with a view to this exigence of employing British-born Subjects, conver­sant in both languages, in the parochial duties of the Reformed Religion,14 as established in this Colony, has likewise paved the way to the amelioration now contemplated.

It has pleased His Majesty most graciously to approve that measure, and to en­able me to act more extensively upon it, not only by having commanded Clergy­men of the Established Church of Scotland (whose religious tenets are precisely similar to those of the Reformed Church of this Country), who have received instruction in the Dutch Language, in Holland, to be sent hither, to be placed in the vacant Churches,15 but by having authorised competent and respectable In­structors being employed at public expence, at every principal place throughout the Colony, for the purpose of facilitating the acquirement of the English Lan­guage to all classes of society.

These Teachers having now arrived, the moment appears favorable for giving full effect to His Majesty’s Commands: and I, therefore, hereby order and direct, by Virtue of the Power and Authority in me vested, that the English Language be exclusively used in all Judicial Acts and Proceedings, either in the supreme or in­ferior Courts of this Colony, from the 1st Day of January, of the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-seven and that all official Acts and Documents, of the several public Offices of this Government, (the Docu­ments and Records of the Courts of Justice, excepted) be drawn up and promul­gated in the English Language, from and after the 1st Day of January, One Thou­sand Eight Hundred and Twenty-five; and that all Documents, prepared and is­sued from the Office of the Chief Secretary to this Government, be prepared in the English Language, from and after the 1st Day of January next, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-three; from and after which periods, respectively, the English Language shall, in such judicial and official Acts and Proceedings, be exclusively adopted.

And that no Person may plead Ignorance hereof, this shall be published and affixed in the usual manner.


Given under my Hand and Seal, at the Cape of Good Hope, this 5th Day of July, 1822.

(Signed) C. H. SOMERSET

By Command of His Excellency the Governor,

(Signed) C. BIRD Secretary

24. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Return to the Roots: Language, Culture & Politics in Kenya (1981)

From: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Writers in Politics: Essays (London: Heinemann, 1981), 53-65. – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, novelist, playwright and critical essayist, is one of the best-known African writers today. He was born in Kenya in 1938, studied English Literature in Uganda and Britain and taught at the Literature Department at the University of Nairobi. In 1977, he produced a play critical of the Kenyan Government in his mother tongue Gikuyu and was detained without trial for a year. Following international protests, he was released in 1978, but was banned from academic life in Kenya, and later went into exile, first to Britain, later to the USA, where he is currently Distinguished Professor of Eng­lish and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. After having gained international fame through novels such as A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977), Ngũgĩ decided to give up writing in English in the late 1970s and to publish his future writings in his mother tongue; in many of his subsequent essays and speeches, he attacked “Europhone” literature in Africa as a legacy of imperialism and advocated a return to Africa’s indigenous languages. While Ngũgĩ is honoured worldwide as one of Africa’s most important writers, his uncompromising Marxist stance and his often outspoken critiques of fellow African writers remain highly controversial in African letters. The following essay is an edited version of a speech originally given at the Kenya Press Club, Nairobi, on 17 July 1979, and Ngũgĩ’s first major statement on the issue of language in African literature.

[This is not the version of this essay printed in Writers and Politics 1981. I have checked against the original and it seems to have been fairly massively edited]

When in 1963 Obi Wali, in his now classic article, “The Dead End of African Lit­erature,” […] argued that the whole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium of educated African writing had no “chance of advanc­ing African Literature and Culture” and that it would end up only producing “a minor appendage in the mainstream of European literature,” he was met with responses ranging from disdain to outright hostility by the leading lights of Afri­can letters.16 Wole Soyinka demanded to know “what Obi Wali has done to trans­late my plays or others into Ibo or whatever language he professes to speak.”17 Chinua Achebe was later to write defiantly that he had been “given the language and I intend to use it.”18 Ezekiel Mphahlele was even more forthright in his em­brace of the English language; at times he wrote as if he ascribed mystical political powers to European languages. For him English and French had become “the common languages with which to present a nationalistic front against white op­pressors.” And in independent Afri­can states “these two languages are still a unifying force.” Turning to South Africa, Mphahlele criticized the racist apartheid regime for encouraging “vernacular” languages:

… the [South African] government has decreed that the African languages shall be used as the medium of instruction right up to secondary schools. The aim is obviously to arrest the black man’s mental development because the previous system whereby English was the medium for the first six years of primary education produced a strong educated class that has in turn given us a sophisticated class of political leaders and a sophisticated following – a real threat to white supremacy.19

Mphahlele could not see that the South African government did not want English, not because of any mystical political qualities inherent in the language, but because of the uncensored and uncensorable wide range of material available in the lan­guage. Japanese and Chinese languages have produced any degree of sophistica­tion among their leaders and followers without English being the medium of instruction. [I gave up going through the article at this point] Why this assumption that African languages would necessarily arrest the mental development of Africans? Ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Songhai, Zimbabwe, Mali used African languages and there is no evidence of mental under­development. What Ezekiel Mphahlele genuinely feared was that with the govern­ment in control of the publishing houses of African languages and with its control of the education system including the curricula, the government hoped to control the content of what people would read. This was easy because there was relatively little written in African languages as opposed to what was available in European Languages. English was also the language of power and exclusion from it meant being weakened when it came to articulation of desires. If Zulu was the language of power those who did not know it would equally be disadvantaged. The Apart­heid regime’s sinister policies had nothing to do with the inherent superiority of English and European Languages over African languages. [...]

The root cause of the African writers’ predicament is historically explicable in terms of the colonial and racist encirclement and suppression of African languages and cultures. African writers, by virtue of their education, were part of the petty bourgeoisie which had been made to imbibe western bourgeois education and cul­tures and the world outlook they carried. It was a petty middle class which, if and when it saw the necessity of rebellion, tended to see that rebellion only within the inherited tradition of language and culture. Nearly all the major texts of anti-colo­nialism are in European languages.

I do not want to suggest that the writers quoted above still cling to the same views on the question of national and foreign languages. They may in fact have changed their positions. I certainly have changed mine. But the fact remains that none of us was able satisfactorily to answer Obi Wali’s challenge, because the only way in which we could have meaningfully met the challenge was through a con­scious and deliberate rejection of our class base and our equally deliberate and conscious total identification with the position of the peasant and the worker in their struggles against exploitation and domination by the unholy alliance of the comprador and imperialist bourgeoisie. Such identification would have compelled us to put all our intellectual resources into the service of the working people’s struggles not by haranguing the ruling class and their regimes and appealing to their conscience but by giving correct images of the struggle for the direct con­sumption of the alliance of the African worker and peasant, the only alliance that can and will ensure success in Africa’s historical struggle for real freedom and dignity.

Instead we heaped indignity on indignity upon the African peasant and worker dictated by the very choice of language and audience. Often the peasant characters were made to appear naive and simpleminded because of the kind of simplistic and distorted foreign language registers through which they were made to articu­late their world view. More often than not, the characters were given the vacil­lating mentality and pessimistic world outlook of the petty-bourgeois. But even where the characters were given their due in terms of dignity and world outlook, they were made to express these awkwardly in foreign languages. And yet some of these characters would have been some of the best speakers and users of their own languages. Thus the tongues of millions were mutilated. The peasants were then given some kind of plastic surgery in the literary laboratories of Africa and, lo and behold, they emerged with English, French and Portuguese tongues. The final indignity consisted in this death wish for African-language speaking communities and the literary creation of a European-language speaking peasantry and working class. Quite clearly it was a death wish because it never reflected the actual social and historical reality. African languages were the ones actually spoken in the vil­lages and towns.

I do not want to ascribe any mystical qualities to the mere fact of writing in African languages without regard to content and form. But the question which Obi Wali posed about the peasant and worker audiences as the strongest source of stamina and blood for African literature is primary and we, Kenyan African writ­ers in particular, must meet the challenges of language choice and audience before we can meaningfully talk of a national literature and a national theatre, two of the most important roots of a modern national culture.

What in fact has been produced by we Kenyan writers in English is not Afri­can literature at all. It is Afro-Saxon literature, or better still, Anglophone Kenyan literature, part of that body of literature produced by Africans in European lan­guages like French and Portuguese that we should correctly term Afro-European literature, or better still, Europhone African literature. We can then talk of its three major divisions: Anglophone African Literature; Francophone African litera­ture; and Lusophone African literature. Kenyan African literature would be that literature produced mostly in the languages of all the African nationalities that make up modern Kenya. And Kenyan National literature would be the totality of all the literatures written in all the Kenyan nationality languages. Kenyan national literature can only get its stamina and blood by utilizing the rich traditions of cul­ture and history carried by the languages of all the Kenyan nationalities. In other words Kenyan national literature can thrive only if it reaches for its roots in the languages, cultures and history of the Kenyan peasant masses, the majority class in each of Kenya’s national communities.

Let me for a moment dwell on this: a language, any language, has its social base in a people’s production of their material life – in the very practical activities of human beings co-operating and communicating in toil as they wrestle with nature to procure their means of life – food, clothing and dwelling place. Language as a system of verbal signposts is a product of a people communicating in the produc­tion, exchange and distribution of wealth. Languages in their particular forms arise historically as social needs. Over a time, a particular system of verbal signposts comes to reflect a given people’s historical consciousness of their twin struggles with nature and with one another. Their language becomes the memory bank of their collective struggles. Such a language comes to embody both continuity and change in their historical consciousness. It is this aspect of language as a collective memory bank of a given community which has made some people ascribe mysti­cal independence to language. It is the same aspect which has made nations take up arms to prevent total annihilation or assimilation of their language. To so anni­hilate a language is tantamount to destroying that people’s collective memory bank of their past achievements and failures, say their experience over time, which forms the basis of their identity as a people. It is like uprooting that people from history:

History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all the preceding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances, and on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity.20

Language is both a product of that succession of the separate generations, as well as being a bank for the way of life reflecting those modifications of collective ex­perience in the production and reproduction of their life. Literature, thinking in images, utilizes language and draws upon the collective experience embodied in the language. In writing one should hear all the whispering and the shouting and the crying and the laughing and all the loving and hating of the many voices gone, and those will never speak to a writer in a foreign language.

We Kenyans can no longer avoid the question: whose language and history will our literature draw upon? European languages and the culture and history carried by those languages? Or national languages – Dholuo, Kiswahili, Gĩkũyũ, Luluhya, Kikamba, Kimaasai, Kigiriama, etc – and the histories and cultures carried by them? The totality of these languages constitutes our heritage as Kenyans. This brings us back to the question of audience. If a Kenyan writer wants to speak to the peasants and workers of any one Kenyan community, then he should write in the language they speak and understand. If on the other hand he wants to com­municate with Europeans and all those who speak European languages, then he must use English, French, Portuguese, Greek, German, Italian and Spanish. If a Kenyan writer wants to be part of the national mainstream, seeking inspiration and strength from the many voices past and present, and giving something back to the mainstream, then he should utilize nationality languages or the All-Kenya national language which is Kiswahili. But if he wants to be part of an alliance of a European mainstream and a national minority social stratum, then he should use European languages. In making their choices, Kenyan writers should remember that the struggle of our languages against domination by those of Europe is part of a wider historical struggle of the Kenyan national culture against imperialist domination. The question of languages, African or European, has in fact been at the centre of Kenyan politics. [53-58]

25. Chinua Achebe, Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature (1989)

From: Chinua Achebe, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, (New York: Knopf, 2009), 96-106; the essay was first published in Doug Killam (ed.), FILLM Proceedings (Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph, 1989). – (For more detailed biographical infor­mation on Achebe see text 8 above). From the very beginning of his writing career, Chinua Achebe, the ‘founding father’ of the anglophone African novel, has written on the role of English in modern African literature in general and his own creative writing in particular; for an early publication see “The African Writer and the English Lan­guage” in Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (London: Heinemann 1975), 55-62. In the following essay, Achebe responds to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s critique of ‘Afro-European’ literature by highlighting the centrality of English in Nigeria’s public affairs and pointing out the political and cultural complexity of Africa’s multilingual land­scape.

Of all the explosions that have rocked the African continent in recent decades, few have been more spectacular, and hardly any more beneficial, than the eruption of African literature, shedding a little light here and there on what had been an area of darkness.

So dramatic has been the change that I am even presuming that a few of my readers may recognize my title as a somewhat mischievous rendering of the sub­title of the book Decolonising the Mind, by an important African writer and revolu­tionary, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.21 The mischief lies in my inserting after the word “politics” the two words “and politicians,” like dropping a pair of cats among Ngũgĩ’s pigeons.

Ngũgĩ’s book argues passionately and dramatically that to speak of African lit­erature in European languages is not only an absurdity but also part of the scheme of Western imperialism to hold Africa in perpetual bondage. He reviews his own position as a writer in English and decides that he can no longer continue in the treachery. So he makes a public renunciation of English in a short statement at the beginning of his book. Needless to say, Ngũgĩ applies the most severe censure to those African writers who remain accomplices of imperialism, especially Senghor and Achebe, but particularly Achebe, presumably because Senghor no longer threatens anybody!

Theatricalities aside, the difference between Ngũgĩ and myself on the issue of indigenous or European languages for African writers is that while Ngũgĩ now be­lieves it is either/or, I have always thought it was both. [97-98]

I write in English. English is a world language. But I do not write in English because it is a world language. My romance with the world is subsidiary to my in­volvement with Nigeria and Africa. Nigeria is a reality which I could not ignore. One characteristic of this reality, Nigeria, is that it transacts a considerable portion of its daily business in the English language. As long as Nigeria wishes to exist as a nation, it has no choice in the foreseeable future but to hold its more than two hundred component nationalities together through an alien language, English. I lived through a civil war in which probably two million people perished over the question of Nigerian unity. To remind me, therefore, that Nigeria’s foundation was laid only a hundred years ago, at the Berlin conference of European powers and in the total absence of any Africans, is not really useful information to me. It is precisely because the nation is so new and so fragile that we would soak the land in blood to maintain the frontiers mapped out by foreigners.

English is therefore not marginal to Nigerian affairs. It is quite central. I can only speak across two hundred linguistic frontiers to fellow Nigerians in English. Of course I also have a mother tongue, which luckily for me is one of the three major languages of the country. “Luckily,” I say, because this language, Igbo, is not really in danger of extinction. I can gauge my good luck against the resent­ment of fellow Nigerians who oppose most vehemently the token respect ac­corded to the three major tongues by newscasters saying good night in them after reading a half-hour bulletin in English!

Nothing would be easier than to ridicule our predicament if one was so mind­ed. And nothing would be more attractive than to proclaim from a safe distance that our job as writers is not to describe the predicament but to change it. But this is where the politics of language becomes politicking with language. [100-101]

The point in all this is that language is a handy whipping boy to summon and belabor when we have failed in some serious way. In other words, we play politics with language, and in so doing conceal the reality and the complexity of our situa­tion from ourselves and from those foolish enough to put their trust in us.

The politics Ngũgĩ plays with language is of a different order. It is a direct reflection of a slowly perfected Manichean vision of the world. He sees but one “great struggle between the two mutually opposed forces in Africa today: an im­perialist tradition on one hand and a resistance tradition on the other.”22 Flowing nicely from this unified vision, Africa’s language problems resolve themselves into European languages, sponsored and foisted on the people by imperialism, and African languages, defended by patriotic and progressive forces of peasants and workers.

To demonstrate how this works out in practice, Ngũgĩ gives us a moving vi­gnette of how the enemy interfered with his mother tongue in his “Limuru peas­ant community”:

I was born in a large peasant family: father, four wives and about twenty-eight children. … We spoke Gikuyu as we worked in the fields.23

The reader is given nearly two pages of this pastoral idyll of linguistic and social harmony in which stories are told around the fire at the end of the day. Even at school, young Ngũgĩ is taught in Kikuyu, in which he excels to the extent of win­ning an infant ovation for his composition in that language. Then the imperialists struck, in 1952, and declared a state of emergency in Kenya; and Ngũgĩ’s world is brutally shattered.

All the schools run by patriotic nationalists were taken over by the colonial regime and were placed under District Education Boards chaired by Englishmen. English became the language of my formal education. In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was the language, and all others had to bow before it in deference.24

A really heartrending scenario, but also a scenario strewn with fatal snags for the single-minded. I had warned about this danger in one of the earliest statements I ever made in my literary career – that those who would canonize our past must serve also as the devil’s advocate, setting down beside the glories every incon­venient fact. Unfortunately, Ngũgĩ is too good a partisan to do this double duty. So he files the totally untenable report that imperialists imposed the English lan­guage on the patriotic peasants of Kenya as recently as 1952! What about the in­convenient fact that already in the 1920s and 1930s

the Kikuyu Independent Schools, which were started by the Kikuyu after their rift with the Scottish missionaries, taught in English [my italics] instead of the vernacular even in the first grade.25

Inconvenient though it may be, the scenario before us here is of imperialist agents (in the shape of Scottish missionaries) desiring to teach Kikuyu children in their mother tongue, while the patriotic Kikuyu peasants are revolting and breaking away because they prefer English!

What happened in Kenya also happened in the rest of the empire. Neither in India nor in Africa did the English seriously desire to teach their language to the natives. When the historic and influential Phelps-Stokes Commission report in West Africa in 1922 favored the native tongue over English,26 its recommenda­tions were eagerly picked up by the official British Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa.27

In Nigeria, the demand for English was already there in the coastal regions as early as the first half of the nineteenth century. A definitive study of the work of Christian missions in Nigeria from Professor J.F.A. Ajay reports that in the Niger Delta in the 1850s, the missionary teachers were already “obliged to cater for the demand … for the knowledge of the English language.”28

In Calabar by 1876, some of the chiefs were not satisfied with the amount of English their children were taught in missionary schools and were hiring private tutors at a very high fee. Nowhere in all this can we see the slightest evidence of the simple scenario painted by Ngũgĩ of European imperialism forcing its lan­guage down the throats of unwilling natives. In fact, imperialism’s ways with lan­guage were extremely complex.

If imperialism was not to blame, or not entirely to blame for the presence of European languages in Africa today, who, then, is the culprit? Ourselves? Our par­ents? Awkward as it may be, we should be bold enough to contemplate it and deal with it once and for all, if we can, and move on. We will discover, I am afraid, that the only reason these alien languages are still knocking about is that they serve an actual need. [102-105]

It would seem, then, that the culprit in Africa’s language difficulties was not imperialism, as Ngũgĩ would have us believe, but the linguistic pluralism of mod­ern African states. No doubt this will explain the strange fact that the Marxist states in Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia, have been the most forthright in adopting the languages of their former colonial rulers – Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and most lately Burkina Faso, whose minister of culture once said with a retrospective shudder that the sixty ethnic groups in that country could mean sixty different nationalities.

This does not in any way close the argument for the development of African languages by the intervention of writers and governments. But we do not have to falsify our history in the process. That would be playing politics. The words of the Czech novelist Kundera should ring in our ears: Those who seek power passion­ately do so not to change the present or the future but the past – to rewrite his­tory.

There is no cause for writers to join their ranks. [106]

26. Ken Saro-Wiwa, The Language of African Literature: A Writer’s Testimony (1992)

From: Research in African Literature, 23,1 (1992), 153-157. – Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) was not only one of the most outspoken environmental activists and intellectual critics of military rule in Nigeria (for more biographical details, see text 9 above), but also a writer experimenting with a wide variety of popular genres (including theatre, radio plays and television formats such as the famous “Basi and Company” series broadcast in Nigeria in the late 1980s). Saro-Wiwa also employed a wide variety of ‘Englishes’ in his work ranging from Standard and West African English employed in most of his satirical novels through the usage of “Pidgin English” in many of his radio and tele­vi­sion broadcasts to experiments with “Rotten English,” a literary variety of non-stan­dard English, in his novel Sozaboy (1985). In the following essay, Saro-Wiwa re­flects on the role of English in Nigeria’s multilingual social reality from the vantage point of a speaker of one of Nigeria’s minor languages and explains his choice of Standard Eng­lish as the most effective medium for literary and political communica­tion.

I was born to Ogoni parents at Bori on the northern fringes of the delta of the Niger during the Second World War. I grew up speaking one of the three Ogoni languages – Khana, my mother-tongue – and listening to and telling folk tales in that language.

When I went to primary school in 1947, I was taught in my mother-tongue during the first two years. During the other six years of the primary school course, the teaching was done in English, which soon imprinted itself on my mind as the language of learning. Khana was the language of play, and it appeared on the class time-table once or twice a week as “vernacular” – wonderful, story-telling sessions in Khana. We spoke Khana at home, and we read the Bible at church in Khana. It was enough to make me literate in Khana to this day.

The Ogoni lived a simple, circumscribed life at that time; farming and fishing were their sole occupations. There were a number of primary schools in the area, but no secondary school. All those who wished or were able to go to secondary school had to move to other parts of the country.

Accordingly, in 1954, at about 13, I proceeded to Government College, Umua­hia, which was the best school in the area. I was the only Ogoni boy in the entire school. Others were mostly Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and representatives of other ethnic groups in what was then Eastern Nigeria. A few came from the Cameroons, which was at that time administered as a part of Nigeria. The English language was a unifying factor at the school; in fact, there was a regulation forbidding the use of any of our mother-tongues at work or during recreation. This rule ensured that boys like myself did not feel lost in the school because we could not com­municate with any other boy in our mother-tongues. There were no books in any other language, apart from English, in the school’s excellent library. We worked and played in English. One result of this regime was that in a single generation, the school produced Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, the late Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Vincent Ike, and I.N.C. Aniebo, who was my contemporary.

There, at Government College, I began to write poems, short stories, and plays in English, the language which, as I have said, bound us all together. There was no question of my writing in Khana because no one else would have understood it.

From Government College, I proceeded in 1962 to the University of Ibadan, where I met young men and women from different parts of a vast country. By then, Nigeria had become independent. The language of instruction at Ibadan was English of course. There was no restriction as to what language we could use out­side the lecture halls. So, those who were there in sufficient numbers invariably spoke their mother-tongues among themselves. However, English was what en­abled students from different ethnic backgrounds to communicate with each other. English was also the official language of the country, by necessity. I wrote poems, short stories, and plays in English. Once again, there was no question of my using my Khana mother-tongue, which no one else at the university would have understood. I was studying English and, at that time, had come across the argument of Obi Wali (whom I was later to meet and to know intimately). Ac­cording to him, English was the dead-end of African literature.29

In those days, African literature was a fashionable course of study, although I did not find it so. I had read most of the novels published by Africans in English and did not feel that they added up to much as a course of study. I was also pre­paring to be a writer, and I was not impressed by Dr. Wali’s arguments for the simple reason that I did not consider myself as a writer of African literature. I wanted to be a good storyteller, no more, no less. Putting me in a category would be the business of the critics. In any case, I was yet to publish anything. That was 1963 or thereabouts.

Nigeria had become independent three years earlier, and the country was grad­ually gravitating towards war. As a boy, I knew that I was an Ogoni. Of that, there was never any doubt. I also knew that Khana was my mother-tongue. Most Ogo­nis spoke Khana. It was a secure world.

Growing up at Government College in Umuahia, I interacted with boys my age from different parts of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. And because the school taught us to be good citizens, I had learned the necessity of being a good Nigerian. By independence in 1960, I had taken the fact for granted. I had travelled to dif­ferent parts of the country and knew something of the great mixture of peoples that is Nigeria. Somehow, as long as I could speak and read English, it was easy to relate to the rest of the country away from my Ogoni home. So, English was im-­ portant. Not only as the language which opened new ideas to me, but as a link to the other peoples with whom I came into contact during my day-to-day life. [153-154]

All the foregoing might seem irrelevant to the question of the language of Afri­can literature. Yet what I have tried to show is that, using Nigeria as an example, different languages and cultures exist in Africa. The fact that we share a common color or certain common beliefs or a common history of slavery and exploitation are not enough to just lump all Africa into a single pigeon-hole.

If Europeans speak of French literature, Spanish literature, and English litera­ture, why do we insist on having an “African literature” and debating what lan­guage it should be written in? Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It has a multiplicity of languages and each language has its own literature. So, there is an Ogoni literature, a Yoruba literature, a Wolof literature. Most of this litera­ture is oral because these societies are, in most cases, preliterate. That is a fact.

However, the need to communicate with one another and the rest of the world, and the fact of colonialism (which is also real) have forced us to write in the languages of our erstwhile colonial masters. I, for one, do not feel guilty about this. Were I writing in Khana, I would be speaking to about 200,000 people, most of whom do not read and write. Writing in English as I do, I can reach, hypothe­tically speaking, 400 million people. That cannot be bad. So, for me, English is a worthy tool, much like the biro pen or the banking system or the computer, which were not invented by the Ogoni people but which I can master and use for my own purposes. Writing in English has not prevented me from writing in my Khana mother-tongue. I am, indeed, working on a Khana novel at the moment, but that is not because I want to prove a point. I am writing this novel so I can offer it to my seventy-year old mother. She is always reading the Bible – the only book which exists in the Khana language – and I would like to give her some other literature to read.

But I am also writing this novel because I can self-publish it. I am lucky to be in a position to do so; none of the established publishers in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world would have accepted to publish it for the simple reason that it would not be profitable to do so. I have also self-published most of the twenty books I have written in English because publishers of fiction by African writers are few and far between. But that is another story.

I am aware of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s argument about decolonizing the mind and his determination to write in his native Gĩkũyũ.30 He is of course welcome to do so. In Nigeria, many writers have been writing in their mother-tongues for a long time. There are newspapers in Hausa and in Yoruba. There is no need to blow this matter out of proportion. Besides, I detect some posturing in Ngũgĩ’s stance. Be­cause he had already made his mark as a writer in English, his works have become instant subjects of translation into English, enabling him to live by his writing. If this were not the case, he might not be so sure of his decision. I also wonder if he has thought or cares about the implications of his decision for the minority ethnic groups in Kenya and for the future of Kenya as a multiethnic nation or, indeed, as a nation at all.

Furthermore, I have examined myself very closely to see how writing or read­ing in English has colonized my mind. I am, I find, as Ogoni as ever. I am en­meshed in Ogoni culture. I eat Ogoni food. I sing Ogoni songs. I dance to Ogoni music. And I find the best in the Ogoni world-view as engaging as anything else. I am anxious to see the Ogoni establish themselves in Nigeria and make their con­tribution to world civilization. I myself am contributing to Ogoni life as fully, and possibly even more effectively than those Ogoni who do not speak and write Eng­lish. The fact that I appreciate Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Hemingway, et al., the fact that I know something of European civilization, its history and philo­sophy, the fact that I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven – is this a colonization of my mind? I cannot exactly complain about it.

I am also aware of the proposition that Africa should adopt one language – a continental language. Wole Soyinka once suggested the adoption of Swahili.31 Quite apart from the fact that the idea is totally impracticable, it seems to me to lack intellectual or political merit. Once a language is not one’s mother-tongue, it is an alien language. Its being an African language is a moot point. As I said ear­lier, Africans have practiced colonialism as much as Europeans. In most cases, this colonialism has been harsh and crude; it is as detestable as European colonial­ism. The position in today’s Nigeria is a case in point. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo have inflicted on three hundred other ethnic groups a rule that is most oner­ous. Were I, as an Ogoni, forced to speak or write any of these languages (as is presently proposed), I would rebel against the idea and encourage everyone else to do the same. Moreover, people of the same tongue are not always of the same mind.

African literature is written in several languages, including the extra-African languages of English, French, and Portuguese. As more and more writers emerge, as criticism responds to their works, as African languages increasingly acquire written form, and as communities become more politically aware of the need to develop their languages and cultures, African literature will break down into its natural components, and we will speak of Ogoni literature, Igbo literature, Fanti literature, Swahili literature, etc. But there will continue to be an African literature written in English and French and Portuguese. The fact that these languages have been on the continent for over a hundred years and are spoken by many African peoples entitles them to a proper place among the languages that are native to the continent.

With regard to English, I have heard it said that those who write in it should adopt a domesticated “African” variety of it. I myself have experimented with the three varieties of English spoken and written in Nigeria: pidgin, “rotten,” and standard. I have used them in poetry, short stories, essays, drama, and the novel. I have tried them out in print, on stage, on the radio, and with television comedy. That which carries best and which is most popular is standard English, expressed simply and lucidly. It communicates and expresses thoughts and ideas perfectly.

And so I remain a convinced practitioner and consumer of African literature in English. I am content that this language has made me a better African in the sense that it enables me to know more about Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa than I would otherwise have known. [155-157]

27. André Brink, English and the Afrikaans Writer (1976)

From: Africa, 3,1 (Rhodes University: Grahamstown, 1976); reprinted in André Brink, Mapmakers: Writing in a State of Siege (London: Faber & Faber, 1983), 108-110. – André Brink (b. 1935) has taught at Rhodes University and at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of eighteen novels and two collections of essays. In 2009 he published the autobiographical memoir A Fork in the Road. Brink’s work owes much to the early experience of studying in France in the 1960s: his literary ideas were influenced by contemporary European writing, while the radical political thought of the student movement caused him to adopt a more politicised role as a South African writer. He has sought in his work to engage with Afrikaner history and identity and to analyse the social and political consequences of racial discrimination. Brink wrote initially solely in Afrikaans but after his novel Kennis van die Aand (1973) became the first novel in Afri­kaans to be banned he rewrote the book in English (as Looking on Darkness; 1974) and took up the practice of writing in both languages. The extract below considers the rationale for this decision.

The English language that arrived at the Cape at whatever date one might care to choose – 1875, 1803 or 1820 – was altogether different from the conglomeration of Dutch dialects in 1652. Naturally all languages continue to change and develop; but the English transplanted to the Cape was undeniably a language already largely formalized and structured: whatever changes may have occurred since then have made little difference to the basic semantic, morphological and syntactic systems and processes of the language, and (apart from minor problems with accent) the Londoner of today has very little trouble in understanding English as she is spoke in South Africa. (Whereas Dutch literary reviews, with a highly erudite readership, are reluctant to publish any material in Afrikaans unless accompanied by a Dutch translation.)

Moreover, while the majority of the British Settlers of 1820 were from the low­er classes, the very nature of the South African economic situation soon estab­lished English as a bourgeois language on the continent. (Afrikaans, on the other hand, retained its working-class connections until at least the Second World War.) It was, in fact, as difficult for the English language to adapt to Africa in the nine­teenth century as it would have been for a gentleman in top hat and tails to adjust to life in the bush. Adapt and adjust it did, let there be no doubt about that – and the current renaissance of English literature in South Africa provides splendid confirmation of the fact – but for a very long time, it seems to me, the nature of the language itself acted as a deterrent in the evolution of a significant indigenous literature. It seems almost incredible, in retrospect, that The Story of an African Farm32 could evoke, in 1883, so convincingly the essential African-ness of Olive Schreiner’s experience: and her achievement is all the more remarkable if com­pared with what followed during the next half-century or so – a period when, with a handful of notable exceptions, English writers in South Africa seemed interested in the land only for what colour it could provide, with a number of misspelt kop­jes, sjamboks, veldschoens33 or Vrouw Grobbelaars34 thrown in for good measure. And it was the language as such which stood in the way – at least until the trium­virate of the magazine Voorslag (Whiplash),35 Roy Campbell,36 William Plomer37 and Laurens Van der Post38 effected an emancipation of South African English from its colonial bonds.

During the 1930s a remarkable reconnaissance of the country started, ex­pressed in a language more fully shaped to the needs of the situation. And out of that venture, via the great contribution of Herman Charles Bosman39 (himself, like Van der Post, an Afrikaner writing exclusively in English), Alan Paton40 and others, emerged a vital and viable new literature bearing the paradoxical stamp of art in being both utterly local and utterly universal in its exploration of man in space and time.

Today, it appears to me – and I can as yet attempt only a tentative statement about it – a most interesting situation has come about. In the past, most Afrikaans works seemed more or less untranslatable into English (and an anthology like Afri­kaans Poems with English Translations proved the point),41 and vice versa. I know from experience that it is easier to translate from French or Spanish or German into Afrikaans than from English. Yet I have, with sweat and close to tears, at­tempted translations from the works of Graham Greene, Henry James, and even Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare. But I would hesitate to attempt Nadine Gordimer in Afrikaans, just as I would be reluctant to translate Van Wyk Louw42 into Eng­lish: in dealing with the experience of living-in-Africa, the one is so quintessen­tially “English,” the other so “Afrikaans” (which is intended as a compliment to both) that their remoteness from one another is increased by their contingency. And this goes for much of the best work written in Afrikaans and in South Afri­can English until quite recently.

But this situation appears to be changing, at least in the work of certain au­thors. If I read Stephen Gray’s Local Colour43 or J. M. Coetzee’s Dusklands44, the fact that both are written in English seems almost coincidental. If I were stopped in the middle of a passage and asked whether I was reading a book in English or Afrikaans I might have to check the text before I could be quite sure. The same goes for, say, an Afrikaans novel by John Miles.45 And I find it even more obvious in much of the poetry written in either language in the country today. The change must, at least to some extent, lie in the language itself. Yet there is nothing “Eng­lish” about John Miles’s Afrikaans and nothing “Afrikaans” about Coetzee’s Eng­lish. (And I am deliberately not choosing examples like Van der Post, Athol Fugard46 or Bosman where the syntactic patterns of Afrikaans are evident just below the surface; or some passages of Etienne Leroux47 which are obviously “English” in inspiration.) So the major change must have occurred in what sur­rounds the language, in its framework of reference, its patterns of possibilities, semantic or otherwise. And this would imply that both languages have reached a point where they are now fully geared to the realities of Africa: both have become sufficiently Africanized to cope with Africa. Both have roots in Europe, but both have chosen Southern Africa as their “operational area.” If this is so – and at this stage I can offer it only as conjecture – it would explain why Afrikaans authors may find it more “natural” at this stage than before to communicate not only in Afrikaans but in English as well.

28. The Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures (2000)

From: African Publishing Review, 9,1 (2000), 1-3. – The Asmara Declaration was drawn up at the conference “Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Cen­tury” held in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, in January 2000. Writers, scholars, cultural activists, educators, civic groups, students, publishers and artists converged for seven days to attend workshops, meetings and performances dedicated to discussing the cur­rent role and future potential of African languages. The Asmara Declaration issued at the end of the conference and reprinted in full below, has since become a major reference point for debates on the role of African languages in public life, education, publishing and literature. Neither the Permanent Secretariat nor the biannual conferences on Afri­can languages envisaged in the Declaration have yet been implemented, however.

We writers and scholars from all regions of Africa gathered in Asmara, Eritrea from January 11 to 17, 2000 at the conference titled Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century. This is the first conference on African languages and literatures ever to be held on African soil, with participants from East, West, North, Southern Africa and from the diaspora and by writers and scholars from around the world. We examined the state of African languages in literature, scholarship, publishing, education and administration in Africa and throughout the world. We celebrated the vitality of African languages and litera­tures and affirmed their potential. We noted with pride that despite all the odds against them, African languages as vehicles of communication and knowledge sur­vive and have a written continuity of thousands of years. Colonialism created some of the most serious obstacles against African languages and literatures. We noted with concern the fact that these colonial obstacles still haunt independent Africa and continue to block the mind of the continent. We identified a profound incongruity in colonial languages speaking for the continent. At the start of a new century and millennium, Africa must firmly reject this incongruity and affirm a new beginning by returning to its languages and heritage.

At this historic conference, we writers and scholars from all regions of Africa gathered in Asmara, Eritrea declare that:

1. African languages must take on the duty, the responsibility and the challenge of speaking for the continent.

2. The vitality and equality of African languages must be recognized as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples.

3. The diversity of African languages reflects the rich cultural heritage of Africa and must be used as an instrument of African unity.

4. Dialogue among African languages is essential: African languages must use the instrument of translation to advance communication among all people, including the disabled.

5. All African children have the inalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues. Every effort should be made to develop African lan­guages at all levels of education.

6. Promoting research on African languages is vital for their development, while the advancement of African research and documentation will be best served by the use of African languages.

7. The effective and rapid development of science and technology in Africa de­pends on the use of African languages and modern technology must be used for the development of African languages.

8. Democracy is essential for the equal development of African languages, and African languages are vital for the development of democracy based on equality and social justice.

9. African languages like all languages contain gender bias. The role of African languages in development must overcome this gender bias and achieve gen­der equality.

10. African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds and for the African Renaissance.

The initiative which has materialized in the Against All Odds conference must be continued through biennial conferences in different parts of Africa. In order to organize future conferences in different parts of Africa, create a forum of dialogue and co-operation and advance the principles of this declaration, a permanent secretariat will be established, which will be initially based in Asmara, Eritrea.

Translated into as many African languages as possible and based on these prin­ciples, the Asmara Declaration is affirmed by all participants in Against All Odds. We call upon all African states, the OAU, the UN and all international organiza­tions that serve Africa to join this effort of recognition and support for African languages, with this declaration as a basis for new policies.

While we acknowledge with pride the retention of African languages in some parts of Africa and the diaspora and the role of African languages in the formation of new languages, we urge all people in Africa and the diaspora to join in the spirit of this declaration and become part of the efforts to realize its goals.

Asmara, 17th January 2000

29. Jan Blommaert, The Asmara Declaration as a Sociolinguistic Problem: Reflections on Scholarship and Linguistic Rights (2001)

From: Journal of Sociolinguistics, 5,1 (2001), 131-142. – Jan Blommaert is Professor of Lin­guistic and a specialist in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis who has published widely on grassroots literacy, language standardization and policy, and the relationship between standard and vernacular languages in Africa. In the following essay, he pre­sents a critical analysis of the Asmara Declaration (see Text 28) and some of its under­lying assumptions about language, culture and society from a sociolinguistic perspec­tive.

I recently received through an electronic list the text of the Asmara Declaration, a declaration about linguistic rights of African languages and their speakers drafted by African scholars and writers at a conference in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000. I am very sympathetic towards a declaration such as this one, having spent a substantial portion of my academic life on precisely the issues advocated in the Declaration and having gone on record repeatedly in this respect. At the same time, declarations such as the Asmara Declaration confront us, sociolinguists, with a problem (or a series of problems) which can be described as a tension between the principles and rights advocated in the declaration, and some of the things we know as sociolinguists. [131]

I have to reaffirm a sociolinguistic truism now (baffled to see how often it is forgotten): within ‘French’, ‘English’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘Swahili’ there is massive diversity and there too, difference is equated with inequality. There is, for instance, consid­erable difference in symbolic value and social effectiveness between spoken Swa­hili and written Swahili. Thus the massification and increase in prestige of Swahili in Tanzania (to the detriment of the former colonial language English) has not led in itself to greater equality or increased social mobility for all Tanzanians: what counts is not the existence and distribution of languages, but the availability, ac­cessibility and distribution of specific linguistic communicative skills such as com­petence in standard and literate varieties of the languages. Granting a member of a minority group the right to speak his or her mother tongue in the public arena does not in itself empower him or her. People can be ‘majority’ members (e.g. they can speak the language of the ruling groups in society) yet they can be thor­oughly disenfranchised because of a lack of access to status varieties of the so-called ‘power language’.

The sheer coexistence of languages in one state cannot be an aim in itself when seen in terms of equality and equal rights; the aim should be to make available the power varieties of languages – any language so chosen – to all citizens. Overlook­ing internal inequalities within what is commonly defined as ‘languages’ is over­looking the political economy of linguistic-communicative resources in a society. It means that ‘linguistic community’ (an ideological unit) and ‘speech community’ (an ethnographic-sociolinguistic unit) are taken to coincide.48 Needless to say, this is highly objectionable. Furthermore, the equation between linguistic communities and ‘nations’ […] and the further equation of language communities with ‘cul­tures’ and thus with ‘species’ of human kind, is hard to sustain. Nation is an elu­sive concept anyway; the ‘one culture – one language’ ideology has been under attack since the days of Sapir and should have been completely discredited since Labov, Gumperz and Hymes. There seems to be a clear influence on the kind of work discussed here from politicized narratives produced by politically mobilized ethnolinguistic groups with a developed political ideology that celebrates language as the distinctive feature of nationhood. Political self-identification and descrip­tive-analytic scholarship seem to overlap. There is nothing wrong with adopting members’ perspectives in social scientific investigations; but these perspectives have to stand the test of ethnographic analysis. [135-136]

At this point, a more general remark needs to be made, for it is closely related to the previous one. In the colonial era, an oligolinguistic paradigm dominated because of practical and ideological reasons;49 oligolingualism was perpetuated after independence in many African states for nation-building reasons: multilin­gualism was equated with multi-ethnicity, and this in turn was opposed to national unity.50 What was needed was a policy in which one (or a handful of) language(s) could be classified as un-ethnic, hence neutral, and thus promoted to the status of national language. This pattern of equations and associations (moulded into an explanatory mode which also dominated much of the sociolinguistics of Africa) was the ideological foundation for advocating the use of English, French and Por­tuguese in Africa. […] This ideology stressed ethnicity as the basic divisive force in society, not social and socio-economic difference. Hence the ‘national languages’ may have been ethnically neutral, but they were socially marked, and whereas they may have avoided fueling ethnic conflicts, they marked and accentu­ated extreme social inequalities.

I am afraid that a program of ethnolinguistic pluralism is based on exactly the same ideology as the one it claims to combat. The call that every linguistic group should have institutional linguistic rights, and the suggestion that this attribution of rights would be a form of conflict prevention, is a mirror image of the colonial and early postcolonial ideology, because here as well, ethnic harmony prevails over social harmony. The suggestion is that linguistic rights would appease ethnic for­ces in society and would so make societies less conflict-ridden. That can be true and useful, but it would be so in exactly the same way as the colonial and early postcolonial language policies were: ethnicity would be appeased, but linguistic and social inequalities would be sharpened. Institutionalization (starting with stan­dardization) means elitization, and it would disenfranchise as many people as it would enfranchise others. Ethnolinguistic minority elites would benefit enormous­ly; the groups-at-large, however, would more likely than not experience little dif­ference (unless one believes that all people are fundamental democrats).

We are already at the level of close empirical inspection here. Rights are fine, only, in practice they tend to be overruled by other factors of inequality. Declaring languages equal does not make their speakers equal in real societies, because far more than language is at play. Discussions of linguistic rights, for instance in Afri­ca, often seem like instances of the tail wagging the dog. In Tanzania – a country renowned for a relatively good education system in Africa – there has been a per­petual debate on the generalized introduction of Swahili as the medium of instruc­tion in the whole post-primary school system, Swahili already being the medium of instruction in primary schools.51 The reasons given by advocates of full Swahi­lization (and I count myself among them) are sound and justified: theirs is a dis­course of anti-(linguistic) imperialism, of national development, of maximizing the human resources potential of the country, democratizing education and improving standards in education by removing linguistic barriers for knowledge transfer. But underlying the issue of the language of instruction is a deeper problem: who goes to school? The official statistics for State schools (overwhelmingly the largest school system in the country, and certainly the most democratic one) in 1995 show the following sobering figures.52 711,777 pupils enter primary school. Only 419,507 actually finish primary school: a drop-out rate of 41 percent. Only 25,201 enter secondary school, i.e. about 6 percent of those who finish primary school. And only 3,903 finish secondary school, creating a drop-out rate in secondary schools of 84.5 percent. About 0.5 percent of all the children who start an educa­tion in Tanzanian State schools actually get the opportunity of finishing secondary education. It was once pointed out to me that the statistics of the educational stratigraphy in Tanzania did not so much look like a pyramid as like a Burmese temple.

Yet Tanzania offers us a relatively optimistic picture in Sub-Saharan Africa; in other parts of Africa (taken together, far exceeding the size of the European Union) there is simply no education at all due to war or extreme poverty: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, large parts of Congo, Sudan and Angola, parts of Chad, Ethiopia and Eritrea, parts of Uganda. In places where the State has ceased to operate, what is left of education is often completely in the hands of missionary societies. Paradoxically, they often use local languages as media of instruction. Coming back to an issue raised earlier, one of the well-known big problems in Africa is the powerlessness of the State. In many places, the State is a fiction; in other places, the power of the State is regionally confined (sometimes concen­trated only in the urban areas); in still other places the State functions, but as the figures for Tanzania illustrate, it functions in ways that cannot be compared, not by a long shot, with State systems in industrialized first world societies. So calling for more legislation, for covenants and explicit policies, suggesting that these poli­cies would in practice have a deep effect on the life conditions of the masses, is an illusion which I deeply regret but which has to be recognized. [137-138]

I now have to return to the Asmara Declaration. I have no doubt that any right-minded sociolinguist would support the ten resolutions contained in it. But I equally have little doubt that any right-minded sociolinguist would not fail to spot the weaknesses in such a declaration. They offer us a wonderful image of language as an instrument for emancipation – an image which bumps into the brutal reali­ties of language in society as soon as one starts looking at these realities. [140]

30. Neville Alexander, The Language Question (1990)

From: Critical Choices for South Africa: An Agenda for the 1990s, ed. Robert A. Schrire (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1990): 134-138. – Neville Alexander (b. 1936), a noted educationalist and socialist theorist, was awarded a Humboldt Fellowship to the Uni­versity of Tübingen, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Gerhart Hauptmann. He subsequently spent eleven years (1963-1974) in prison on Robben Island for opposi­tional political activities. He has taught at schools and universities and has always evinced a particular interest in language policy and planning. He has been Director of the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) and is now a director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at the University of Cape Town. He received the Lingua Pax Prize for his contribution to the promotion of multilingualism in post-apartheid South Africa. In this research paper written as the country was beginning the transition to a post-apartheid society Alexan­der examines its options in the field of language planning, emphasising the future role of English as a lingua franca and advocating greater multilingualism.

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