he continent of Africa is regularly heralded as perhaps the most magically unique place in the world, and with good reason. Beloved for its breath-taking natural landscapes, its rich cultural diversity, political intricacies and ancient heritage, it’s a popular tourist destination, attractive market opportunity and a fascinating case study.
African languages are about as diverse as the people themselves. There are estimated to be about 2000 different languages in the whole 30.37 million square km. Some of these, such as Swahili and Amharic, are commonly used throughout the continent and worldwide - but there are hundreds of other languages that most people (particularly those outside of Africa) would never even have heard of.
But before delving into what’s currently happening with African languages, it’s important to discuss what makes the study of languages so prevalent. Why should anyone care what languages are spoken and why?
First of all, let’s get personal about it - it’s who you are. Language has the power to define a person wholly, to tell a story that’s so much more detailed than what’s on the surface, than what meets the eye.
An individual’s mother tongue is part of their heritage. For those living in countries with immigrant parents, a native language that you’re born with is a piece of your culture that will never leave you. Even if you’re not fully fluent and just remotely familiar with a mother tongue, it shines a light into your background - where your family originated from and where you’re descended from.
Language is a powerful medium, charged with emotion behind every word. Linguists will agree that studying the root of words and phrases is immensely fascinating and can unravel a story into someone’s past. In everyday life, just hearing a language that’s known to you can conjure up an emotional journey, of familiarisation, of comfort and a feeling of home.
Broaden the Horizon
On a practical level, languages are a matter of convenience. They’re the gateway to getting tasks completed and objectives met, and it boils down to understanding. By communicating in a mutually familiar language, individuals can explain things miles better and get things resolved with ease.
These small successful interactions on a local setting, made possible by good language skills, enable people to do business globally, broadening the horizon and widening the economy. It means that companies can communicate with people overseas and get their message understood satisfactorily.
So, language benefits people not only personally, but facilitates commercial success on an international stage. All that, just from speaking the same tongue!
Heading back to Africa, with so many languages spoken up and down the continent, it’s facing a battle with language endangerment. Many of the languages, hundreds of them in fact, are at critical risk of being lost forever, and it’s a situation that’s sadly getting worse not better.
When speakers cease to use a certain language, replacing it with something else perhaps more commonly used, it puts the language under great threat. The number of people left speaking that language inevitably gets reduced, and it’s finally a matter of whether or not it’s passed to the next generation or not - if not, then that’s it. Game over.
Many African languages are already dead. Bongomek, for example, that was originally spoken in Western Kenya, is no longer spoken anywhere. Other languages, such as El Molo, Watwa, Hansa and Okiek are barely spoken by anyone and under grave risk of extinction.
Once a language is no longer used by anyone, the culture, the heritage, all that is important and revered about that spoken word, also becomes obsolete. Society has changed all across the world and modernised itself quite dramatically, and it is perhaps people’s desire to seek out the mainstream, the trendy and the ‘normal’ that has pushed the traditional out of the window. Africans have inevitably chosen to use languages that are easier to access and more readily available.
That becomes a large part of the problem that exists in the great African continent: there’s no easier way for people.
Consider an African person, whose native language is Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria but not commonly known outside of that region and certainly not outside of the continent. If they are to shop with a company for example that doesn’t know their language, least of all use it within their business - how would that potential customer react? Not being able to access their website in a familiar language, not understanding the company’s offering since it’s in a foreign tongue, and certainly not being able to comfortably interact with them - it’s not going to result in a positive experience, and certainly not a sale.
Translation tools have become increasing popular and sophisticated, yes, but there’s still one problem they do not solve: customer effort. The higher the amount of work required by someone to actually fully and seamlessly communicate with another party, the less inclined they’ll be to even bother.
Native language is all about familiarity and comfort and ease - not a struggle. If something feels too much like hard work and an upward climb they’ll never accomplish, then no more effort will go in and they’ll give up.
This is what is sadly happening to this increasing pool of endangered languages. With more effort being exerted into actually using them and doing so without friction, they risk becoming forgotten and lost forever.