07.04.2011 Feature Article

Preserving African Indigenous Languages; how useful is it?

Preserving African Indigenous Languages; how useful is it?
07.04.2011 LISTEN

“When a language goes out of use, something central in human thought has vanished.” William Z. Shetter

Ingrained in every language is a set of cultural values that embodies the society within which the language is spoken. Language provides the tools for meaning to be shared between and among its speakers. A language possesses some level of personified attributes since it lives, dies or moves from one place to the other. A living language is that which develops continuously and remains in use. In this context, English, French, Arabic are said to be living languages. A dead language is the converse of a living language. Its usage is virtually non-existent and does not undergo any process of development. Undoubtedly, most of Africa's indigenous languages are fast running into extinction and that is why languages like the Kwadi (Angola), Duli (Cameroon) and Mawa (Nigeria) are spoken no more.

It is difficult to accurately determine the number of languages that exist across the world but so far the most authoritative source is attributed to the Ethnologue organization which estimates that there are 6,912 languages spoken across the globe. Out of that number, African indigenous languages account for about 2,000. According to the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent.

Language is the carrier of the cultural heritage of societies thus the death of a language constitutes the annihilation of norms, values, attributes and beliefs of a people. But with the rapid extinction of Africa's indigenous languages, what then is the future of our heritage? The situation is worrying as the intrusion of foreign cultures through the media facilitated by advanced communications technology are fast causing most Africans to lose ties with their roots.

The European community speaks only about 230 languages and yet such languages have found their way onto the global language environment. Meanwhile, Papua Guinea has speakers of 832 languages which exceed the combined languages of the Europeans but none of her languages has gained an international appeal! I strongly believe that it should be our concern as Africans and for that matter Ghanaians to develop our indigenous languages failure of which will render many Ghanaians totally alienated and estranged in a world of their own!

There are those who argue that preserving our indigenous languages is a worthless exercise. Their argument is fundamentally built on the fact that we now live in an era of globalization where there is the need for the adoption of languages that have international appeal. In my opinion, this assumption is intellectually bankrupt. It must be stated that there is no prescriptive language that qualifies one to effectively harness the advantages of globalization. If that was the case, the economies of Japan, Malaysia and China among others would have remained in shambles because in these countries, Indo European languages have not gained official status and are thus not widely used.

Even in the global economy, one must be equipped with something unique if he or she is to be of value and in that regard, one's unique language can be of a great asset. It should be noted that the importance of preserving African indigenous languages like any other developed languages cannot be down played at all. Certainly, language is an embodiment of culture. A preserved language is a preserved culture and the opposite of this is true. As Africans, we cannot afford to allow our languages undergo extinction when we already suffer some forms of denials and estrangements in our own lands. By denials, I mean most of our rich cultural values and systems have diminished through the forces of western culture. I have always argued that most Africans have become disinherited personalities due to their unbridled desire for everything western. Consequently, they suffer identity crisis.

We have embraced the Indo-European languages and by doing so, our vocabulary stock only makes references to things of Western appeal. Most Ghanaian children can hardly relate what they learn in English with their counterparts in Ga, Twi, Dagbani, Ewe and the likes. Typical Ghanaian names like Nyamekye, Adom, Nhyira, Mawuli among others that extol the attributes of God are not appreciated so we find educated Africans setting aside these names of divine connotations for names that have no bearing with virtues of life. It does not require any intellectual analysis to realize that language stocks one's cultural values and attributes. After all, what do the vocabularies relate to if not referring to the entities that govern our marriage, religion, chieftaincy, arts and crafts, family life, education, morality, and governance? Our language is the enclave of our heritage and therefore losing it to western languages is like submitting oneself to cultural and mental slavery! Indeed, it is an outright sale of our birthrights.

Willian Z. Shetter rightly observes that “Most of the languages in the world today find themselves under extreme pressure from politically dominant 'prestige' languages such as English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic.” For a continent that has suffered extreme slavery and colonialism leading to misrepresentations of our rich culture, we must redeem the vestiges of our heritage by developing indigenous languages through our literary works.

Our ability to preserve our indigenous languages is one way of empowering future generations to respect who they are and what they stand for. A preserved language thus provides for the easy transfer of indigenous skills, values and traits to the coming generation. The perceived assumption that Indo-European languages are the ones to speed up our developmental efforts must not be given any consideration. If any thing at all, one can argue that for us to effectively fit into the global metropolis we must endeavour to be polyglot and or multilingual.

In preserving our languages, our schools and colleges should promote the teaching and speaking of our indigenous languages in our educational establishments and our universities and colleges need to fashion out strategies to promote their usage. According to Stephen R. Anderson of the Linguistic Society of America, “When a language ceases to be learned by young children, its days are clearly numbered, and we can predict with near certainty that it will not survive the death of the current native speakers.”

The media can help in this crusade by having more programmes produced in local languages aired on local radio and TV stations. Even though this is already happening in many African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, a lot more needs to be done. Well-crafted plots and movies produced in our indigenous languages with translations in English and French should be made available for movie lovers.

Our governments must be bold enough to replicate the brevity of the South African language policy which recognizes eleven official languages with the constitution clearly stating that all the eleven languages be accorded equal official status.

Don Osborn (2007) makes an appealing revelation in his Language policy and language use in South Africa: an uneasy marriage. He argues that; “Language is one of the most enigmatic possessions and a quintessence of our humanity. It is the principal factor enabling individuals to become fully functioning members of the group into which they are born. Nations are able to develop because language provides an important link between the individual and his/her social environment. In addition to this, it acts as a link to social equity” Stephen R. Anderson rightly argues that “When a language dies, a world dies with it, in the sense that a community's connection with its past, its traditions and its base of specific knowledge are all typically lost as the vehicle linking people to that knowledge is abandoned.”

Like the dinosaurs, our indigenous languages will go into extinction if we don't take steps to preserve and develop them. Since the value of our cultural traits and social dignity are linked up with our languages we must stand against the coercive forces of the Indo European languages!

The writer, Adama Bukari, is a full-time author/publisher and the C.E.O of Exceed Media Ltd, a company that delivers superior services in publishing, media consultancy, business communications and advertising. He is also a motivational speaker and the editor-in-chief of JUVENILE INSPIRER; a youth magazine which seeks to deal with youthful inertias. Currently, he is studying Master of Philosophy in Global Leadership at the Institute of Professional Studies, Legon. He was a finalist in the JoyFM's MY BUSINESS 2010 Entrepreneurial Mentorship Programme. He doubles as the Campaign Manager for “School for All” projects; a PAMEPI initiative that envisions Africa without illiteracy.

Email: [email protected] or [email protected]
Cell: 0244 653 009

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