The future of multilingual cities in Africa

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Africa is home to some of the most multilingual cities in the world, for many different reasons and in many different ways. Africa’s economic development affects this multilingualism, both encouraging it and, in some cases, threatening it.

A report recently published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B has raised yet another alarm for the world’s minority languages and examines why they are disappearing. Economic dominance by one language is a major factor. The report considers how to help languages – and the cultures they represent – survive. In light of these findings and recommendations, we should consider the fate of languages in Africa, how they are affected by development, as well as the role they could play in Africa’s economic growth.

Out of the nearly 7000 languages spoken in the world today, over 2000 of them are spoken in Africa. Southern Africa in particular has incredible diversity, being home to 1500 languages. Many cities, such as those in South Africa where 11 official languages are spoken, have a large number of different, and established, linguistic groups living side by side. Also, due to Africa’s development its cities are growing rapidly – groups of people who speak minority languages move into cities, bringing their languages with them. In the same way, development, trade and political factors also mean that large numbers of people move to different countries in Africa, or come to Africa from all over the world, especially for the exploitation of the continent’s rich natural resources. Cities in Africa have never been more multilingual than they are today.

But what does it mean for a city to be multilingual? The word carries different meanings. It can mean simply that different languages co-exist in a city, and inhabitants may or may not speak multiple languages in large numbers. Multilingualism also refers to one person who can speak two or more languages, and some measure multilingualism in cities according to how many people are bi- or multilingual.

African cities are known for high numbers of multilingual inhabitants. The vast majority of South Africans are at least bilingual, speaking either English or Afrikaans in addition to another South African language. A clear example of this in the fact that English is the most commonly used language in news, business and by the government, yet it is the mother tongue of only 10% of the population. South Africa also has a diverse immigrant population, adding hundreds of other languages to its cities.  Here, and in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya amongst numerous others, it is the norm for people to speak three to five languages at a functional level.

These numbers are impressive when compared to North America and areas in Europe. In the US, only 16% of inhabitants speak a second language. In Manchester, recently announced as the most multilingual city in Western Europe for the 200 languages present in the city, just less than 40% of inhabitants speak a second language. Although there are many bilingual people in Europe, the numbers drop when you look at people who speak three or more languages (less than 25%).

The Royal Society B report found that minority languages most at threat are those in North America, Europe and Australia. Languages are also disappearing more rapidly in more developed countries, such as Ume Sami in Scandinavian countries, Auvergnat in France and languages such as Upper Tanana in North America. The report urges governments to prevent this loss, as it means that unique cultures and histories will be lost as well.

 The future of languages in Africa may well depend on the approach governments take towards linguistic diversity today and in the near future. While economic development does encourage diversity, it also can threaten it, depending on the social or structural support it receives.

For example, when speakers of minority languages move to cities, they will learn the dominant language because it is necessary for work, administration and day to day activities. Whether families keep their languages alive often depends on the area they move into, and whether there is an existing linguistic community there that can act as a support. This is the case in some cities, such as Ziguinchor in Senegal, where there are neighbourhoods where languages such as Joola, Pulaar and Mandinka dominate to a large degree. Where this is not the case, language skill can change greatly between generations in a family.

A typical case is of a couple or young family moving to a city where they speak the dominant language as well as their home language. As the children grow up in the city and attend schools, they tend to have a more “passive” understanding of their parent’s mother tongue – they understand it, but hardly speak it, and do not pass it on to their children. The “city’s” language is seen as more useful and practical and the other language (the minority or foreign language, or simply the language which is not economically dominant) is lost.

If the fate of minority languages in North America and Europe is to be avoided in Africa, governments are urged to encourage the presence of multiple, and minority languages. One of many positive results would be that this includes more population groups in business development, those who may be excluded because they are not very fluent in the dominant language. And scholars argue too that for governments interested in economic growth, investing in languages – education, translation and incorporating all of a country’s languages into development plans – would only enhance sustained development on the continent.

By Jennifer van Dorsten

Kwintessential Africa Translation Agency has years of experience working with language experts, translation and interpretation in South Africa and Africa

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