Vision of the African Academy of Languages
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
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
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.
No.161. 41.1, 19-25.
Bamgbose, Ayo (2000). Language and Exclusion. Muenster, Hamburg,
Diogenes. No. 161, Vol. 41/1 (Endangered Languages II: Africa).
MACALAN (2001). Consultation Africaine 25-26-27. RAPPORT
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.
UNESCO (1978). Repertoire des Recherches sur les Langues Africaines
Sub-Saharienne (Edition Provisoire). Paris: UNESCO.
UNESCO (1997). Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on
Language Policies in
Africa, Harare, 20-21 March 1997.