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Launch of the activities of the african academy of languages
September 8th, 2001

Mission and Vision of the African Academy of Languages
Ayo Bamgbose

In most discussions of the status of African languages today, especially among language experts, one expression that constantly turns up is the need for revalorization of our indigenous languages. The implication of this is that African languages previously had a role and vitality, which had been eroded as a result of the impact of colonialism. Prior to the colonial experience, African languages were the sole media of socialization within the language community, and communication within and outside the group. There was no question of any stigma being attached to the use of one's own language for any purpose. In fact, the expression of the culture was intimately linked to the language. Today, the situation has changed. Imported European languages, which served as the language of colonial administration, have overshadowed African languages, and become the preferred mode of communication in most domains. It is not unusual for African children to be raised speaking English or French, even in the home, and many African adults are able to speak but not write their mother tongue.

The most pervasive effect of the dominant status of imported languages is the marginalization of African languages and the negative attitude that has developed in connection with their use in certain domains. For example, not many Africans believe that meaningful education is possible in their languages beyond the early years of primary education. This attitude has resulted from decades of teaching and learning through imported languages at practically all cycles of education. Those who are literate only in an African language are made to feel inferior to those who are proficient in the dominant imported official languages. This feeling continues to be reinforced by the elitist nature of our educational system, which entails the exclusion of many children from enrolment in, or completion of, primary school education.

Apart from marginalization, the partition of Africa, with the resulting division of populations speaking the same language, has had a number of consequences. First, divergent policies pursued by different colonial administrations have led to different treatments for the same language group. For example, while one African language is used in primary education in one territory, the same language is completely ignored in another. Second, the entrenchment of different official languages has created a barrier in communication and collaboration. Third, the fact that the same African language is subjected to contact with two different official languages has resulted in divergent influences, in orthography, loanwords and code-mixing. For example, in names especially and some other words, the sound /u/ is written as 'u' and 'ou' and the sound /g/ is written as 'g' and 'gu' in Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin (e.g. fùfú, foùfoú; Ìgè, Ìguè) respectively, while the sound /w/ is written as 'w' and 'ou' in Hausa in Nigeria and Niger (e.g. Lawali, Laouali) respectively. Similarly, loanwords and code-mixing involve English and French respectively. For example, while the Yoruba in Nigeria refer to odun nineteen sixty-four, those in Benin refer to odun mille neuf cents soixante-quatre, both of course meaning 'the year 1964'.

Given the current situation of African languages, it is clear that there is need to reposition, revalorize and empower them so that they can be used in a wider range of domains. Besides, since there is a high degree of illiteracy in Africa, there is no alternative to the use of African languages for literacy and for ensuring mass participation in development. The rest of this address will be devoted to efforts that have been made in the past to promote African languages, the role of the ACALAN as a catalyst in revolutionizing current approaches, the strategies to be adopted, and the ultimate goals and objectives.

Empowering African Languages
Africa has witnessed several attempts to empower African languages, particularly through the activities of UNESCO and the OAU. These have mainly been carried out through non-binding resolutions made at international conferences (for example, the O.A.U. Language Plan of Africa 1986, and the Harare Declaration 1997) and the establishment of institutions, devoted to specific subjects. Examples of such institutions are the now defunct OAU Bureau of Languages at Kampala, Uganda, the Centre of Linguistic and Historical Studies through Oral Tradition (CELHTO) at Niamey, Niger, and the Regional Centre of Documentation on Oral Traditions and African Languages (CERDOTOLA) in Yaoundé, Cameroon. UNESCO on its part has been mainly active in the promotion of the use of African in Education in general and literacy in particular. As part of its effort to empower African languages, UNESCO also sponsored the translation of its composite History of Africa into Swahili, Hausa and Yoruba.
The themes that run through all the resolutions at the various conferences can be summarized as follows:

  • African languages should be developed for use in a wider range of domains, particularly in education, mass communication, legislature, and technology.
  • The use of African languages for teaching and learning is highly recommended as it will make the transition from the home to the school more natural and formal education available to a wider population of school-going age.
  • Eradication of illiteracy through mass literacy programmes cannot be achieved without the use of indigenous languages. Hence African governments must make the use of such languages a cornerstone of their language policy.
  • Economic and social development requires mobilization of the nation's human resources and this is best achieved by the use of African languages.
  • The potential of cross-border languages for communication and integration must be harnessed through collaboration and harmonization of language policies.
  • Vehicular languages at national and regional levels should be adopted as official and working languages respectively in place of non-indigenous languages currently being used for these purposes.
  • Existing imported languages (otherwise known as partner languages) should continue to have a role in secondary and tertiary education as part of a planned bilingual policy.
  • In order to ensure that policies are translated into effective action, they should be backed by national legislation and a plan of action should be set out which will specify time-frame, modalities, and agents of implementation.

An examination of the above proposals and resolutions will show that there is nothing new about them since they have been repeated and recycled from conference to conference. What is really significant is how much they have remained on paper and not seriously addressed. Such neglect is enough justification for a new approach, which the founding of ACALAN represents.

ACALAN as a Catalyst
What is the need for such a body as ACALAN? An examination of the failed initiatives at the national, continental and regional levels will show that one major reason for lack of success is the absence of structures to foster the implementation of agreed policies. It is not enough for resolutions on language to be passed at conferences, such resolutions must be integrated into national language policies and a detailed plan of action must be worked out. This presupposes the existence of a body of experts charged with the responsibility of preparing and implementing such plans and adequate funding to back up the policies.

The concept behind the formation of ACALAN is to address the perceived inadequacies of existing practice by adopting a two-pronged approach. First, at the continental level, ACALAN will serve as an apex body generating ideas, translating policy decisions into workable plans and providing a reservoir of expertise available to be tapped by member states of the African Union in the formulation and implementation of their language policies. Second, at the sub-regional and national levels, there will be a grassroots approach through the setting up of a language commission for each language. (MACALAN 2001). There are two major advantages of this second approach: Stakeholders in a language will also be those intimately connected with research and implementation of language policy on the language. In addition, since African languages cut across political boundaries, there will be increased opportunity for joint action and policies regarding the development and use of cross-border languages.

The core of the activities of ACALAN will be carried out by Academicians drawn from all over Africa, who will serve as models of excellence for younger researchers to emulate. They will bring to bear the wealth of their experience and facilitate the sharing of ideas and experience. By their commitment, they will demonstrate that the goal of empowerment of African languages is realistic and realizable.

ACALAN will maintain a database for the exchange of information and will devote part of its resources to boosting of research and coordination of both research and implementation activities. To facilitate the work of the Academy, the languages it will be concerned with may be grouped into six types:

  • Widely spoken cross-border languages
  • Limited cross-border languages
  • Widely spoken non-cross-border languages
  • Limited non-cross-border languages
  • Endangered languages
  • Imported (or partner) languages

Widely spoken cross-border languages have the potential of serving as a model for empowerment, for they have a large population to back them and materials prepared in one country can be circulated and used in another. Hence, to extend their use to a wider range of domains should not be problematic once the necessary language development work has been done. A good example of this is Swahili in Eastern Africa, which, but for other political considerations, could easily have been entrenched as a sub-regional lingua franca. It will be recalled that the O.A.U. in article XXIX of its 1963 Charter undertook that "the working languages of the Organization and all its institutions shall be, if possible, African languages". In furtherance of this clause and of the O.A.U. Language Plan of Action of 1986, it was once suggested that Arabic, Swahili, Hausa and a Nguni-related South African language, each, a cross-border language representing an African sub-region, should serve as working languages of the Organization. It is one of the failures of policy initiatives that this clause is yet to be implemented. One of the major objectives of ACALAN is to empower some of the more dominant vehicular languages in Africa to the extent that they can serve as working languages in the African Union and its institutions.

Limited cross-border languages are of two types, according to the size of population of speakers: symmetric and asymmetric. Limited symmetric cross-border languages are those languages spoken by small groups on both sides of a border. Such languages may appear insignificant, but they play a major role in interaction, integration and economic activities between the countries concerned. Hence, the role they play in this regard deserves more serious attention and study. Limited asymmetric cross-border languages are spoken by large groups on one side of the border and by small groups on the other side. Since they are dominant in at least one country, they have the potential of use in wider domains, which dominance in that country affords. Besides, any language development effort in the larger country can easily be adopted by the smaller one without any unnecessary cost.

Widely spoken non-cross-border languages already serve as lingua franca at the national level. It is a happy accident of colonial history that they do not fall into partition areas where lines of demarcation could have separated kin from kin. This fact should, however, not make them less important than cross-border languages. In any case, several of these languages are already well developed and are being used in some important domains, such as education. Research and development work on cross-border languages should go hand in hand with those of dominant non-cross-border languages, for the ultimate objective is to empower all African languages, and the more viable and visible languages are, the more likely their potential for empowerment.

Limited non-cross-border languages are non-dominant languages spoken by relatively smaller populations than those of the dominant languages. It is to be noted, however, that population size is relative, as what is considered a minority or small-group language in a big country may be larger than a major language in a small country. In any case, since the mission of ACALAN is to foster the development of all African languages, and the preferred policy for all African languages is pluralism, with its attendant multilingual and multicultural development, all African languages, large or small, should have a definite role in an integrated language policy.

Endangered languages are languages with very small numbers of speakers whose ranks continue to be depleted because the languages are no longer being learnt and used by the younger generation. In time, unless remedial steps are taken, such languages will probably become extinct. The question of endangered languages has received serious attention in the last few years (Robins and Uhlenbeck 1991; Diogenes No. 161, 1993). UNESCO, the Permanent International Committee of Linguists (CIPL), the Linguistic Society of America, the World Conference on African Linguistics (WOCAL), among other organizations, have undertaken research projects on endangered languages. There are two basic approaches to the problem. One is to prevent the loss to mankind that is bound to result from the extinction of an endangered language. The emphasis of this approach is archival. It is to collect as much material as possible on the language and make as comprehensive linguistic description as time will permit. The other approach is to try and revitalize the endangered language by encouraging its use in literacy and early primary education. The success of this approach will, however, depend on the will of the speakers to make their language survive. If they have lost all interest in it and have adopted the language of their immediate community, no external pressure can ensure the survival of such a language. (Bamgbose 1993:23-24).

Imported languages, such as French and English, have long been dominant in African language policy and will probably remain so for some time to come. Promotion of African languages is often wrongly interpreted as rejection of imported languages. The fact that this is entirely a misapprehension is aptly captured by the term partner languages. European languages have been implanted in Africa and they are now part of the linguistic repertoire available to educated Africans. They will continue to be partners to African languages, but not in an unequal relationship. There will have to be a redefinition of roles such that African languages can share some of the roles hitherto dominated by imported languages. For example, there is no reason why the teaching and learning for the entire duration of primary education cannot be in African languages, with French or English merely taught as a subject. Similarly, dissemination of information in the media, particularly on radio and television, should be largely in African languages. In short, true partnership implies that African languages should cease to be poor relations to the imported European official languages.

According to the Plan of Action drawn up by the Task Force set up to prepare for the launch of ACALAN, the Academy, in the first five years of its existence, will:

  • Disseminate information on the Academy, and, in particular, establish a website.
  • Instal the organs of the Academy, and hold the inaugural conference of the Assembly of Academicians.
  • Organize the establishment of Language Commissions as provided for in the Statutes of the Academy
  • Document, from available sources in each country, the total number of languages, and compile a register of language experts and researchers. (Cf. UNESCO 1978, which needs to be updated).
  • Compile information on language policies of member states of the African Union, with particular reference to domains of use and devise strategies that may be employed to extend use to a wider range of domains.
  • Identify and compare existing instructional curricula with a view to harmonizing and adapting the language policies across states.
  • Examine instructional materials with a view to improving them and sharing their use across states, particularly in the case of cross-border languages.
  • Provide expertise to states that may require it, particularly in the area of language development and implementation of language policies.
  • Bring to bear new technology on the use of African languages, including computer programs to facilitate typing, printing, publishing and use on the Internet.
  • Document existing linguistic maps and cooperate in the production of revised, more accurate and composite maps.
  • Encourage and support rewards for excellence in works in African languages by awarding prizes and conferring honours and distinctions.
  • Explore areas of cooperation between African language promotion and research on imported official languages.

Facilitate documentation and exchange of information by establishing a database, collecting and archiving documents, and publishing.
It is hoped that, in carrying out these activities, ACALAN will be able to obtain substantial support and funding from member states of the African Union as well as donor agencies. As may be expected, the bulk of the work will be done in individual countries and through members on the Language Commissions as well as experts invited by the states or Commissions. The ultimate aim is that, through these activities, those states that have not hitherto given any serious attention to developing and using African languages will begin to do so, those already doing so will be encouraged to extend such use to a wider range of domains, and those that share a cross-border language will discover and exploit areas of useful co-operation and collaboration.

Goals of ACALAN
Although the strategies adopted by the Academy in its activities are a combination of basic and practical research, the ultimate goals are psychological, socio-economic and political. First, by increased use of African languages in a variety of domains, the languages will be empowered and revalorized. No longer will imported European languages be seen as superior nor those who speak African languages as inferior. They will take justifiable pride in their languages and, in effect, the image of these languages will be enhanced, as others have respect for them and their speakers.

Second, an immediate application of African languages will be their adoption as languages of learning and teaching in the formal and non-formal school system. Africa can never hope to break out of the shackles of illiteracy unless the languages spoken by the majority at grassroots level are employed for literacy. Similarly the goal of Education for All will remain a mirage as long as basic education is conducted in imported official languages, which remain a monopoly of the few. A major aspect of empowerment of African languages, to which the Academy is irrevocably committed, is to have these languages used as much as possible in education both as media of instruction and as subjects in the curriculum.

Third, the use of African languages for information dissemination and for political participation will serve to ensure grassroots involvement in the political process and demystification of the elite. A byproduct of the use of imported official languages in socioeconomic and political domains is the exclusion of the masses. Experience in countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, where the language of political discourse has shifted from English to Swahili, has shown a widening of the basis for participation (Bamgbose 2000:11). For instance, many of those who used to dominate debates in English become merely average when called upon to perform in the African national language.

Fourth, through collaboration between states sharing a common language, a bond of fellowship and interest will develop, which is likely to aid socio-economic and political integration. For far too long, the colonial language divide has served to obscure relationships evident in the incidence of cross-border languages. A deliberate exploitation of such relationships can only help Africa's elusive search for integration.

Fifth, a wider use of African languages will mean greater involvement of a wider segment of the population in development. Considering that any development that is limited to the elite can only be partial, gains that may accrue by extending the language base of development include increased human capital, greater participation, increased productivity, and accelerated economic growth.

Sixth, how can Africa maintain its distinctive identity in the third millenium? Bombarded as it is on all sides by influences traditionally associated with development, such as Westernization and globalisation, should it not try to project its Africanness through its languages? Unless it is able to do this, all talk of an African Renaissance will remain empty sloganeering!

In the foregoing, I hope I have succeeded in presenting some elements of the mission and vision of the African Academy of Languages. All that remains for me to do is to commend the initial vision and initiative of His Excellency, President Alpha Oumar KONARE, of the Republic of Mali, who started this idea as MACALAN, which later blossomed into ACALAN with the blessing and approval of the O.A.U. On behalf of linguists in Africa, I extend to Your Excellency our deep gratitude and congratulations on this laudable achievement. I can only hope that African language experts everywhere will join hands in making the Academy a model of which Africa will be justly proud and that Member States of the African Union will accord to the Academy the highest priority, particularly in terms of policy formulation and funding.


Bamgbose, Ayo (1993). Deprived, Endangered, and Dying Languages. Diogenes.
No.161. 41.1, 19-25.
Bamgbose, Ayo (2000). Language and Exclusion. Muenster, Hamburg, London: LIT
Diogenes. No. 161, Vol. 41/1 (Endangered Languages II: Africa).

MACALAN (2001). Consultation Africaine 25-26-27. RAPPORT FINAL. Bamako:
O.A.U. (1986). Language Plan of Action for Africa. Document CM/1352 (XLIV), Addis
Ababa: O.A.U. Secretariat.
Robins, R.H. and E.M. Uhlenbeck (1991). Endangered Languages. Oxford: Berg.
UNESCO (1978). Repertoire des Recherches sur les Langues Africaines en Afrique
Sub-Saharienne (Edition Provisoire). Paris: UNESCO.
UNESCO (1997). Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on Language Policies in
Africa, Harare, 20-21 March 1997.

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