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Why African Languages are Disappearing

Why African Languages are Disappearing






Around 11% which is equivalent to 460 million people live in Africa, a continent that is roughly a quarter of the total surface of the earth. Around 2,500 languages and about 1,400 dialects are spoken in Africa out of around 6,500 dialects in the world today. These figures indicate that there are some languages that are only spoken by a handful of people. The most widely spoken languages, with around 40 million people speaking them are Swahili, Oromo, and Hausa-Fulani. Of all the languages spoken in Africa, Arabic is the mother tongue of the majority. In comparison, there are only as half as many people in Asia that speak Arabic as there are in Africa.

From the points above, it is easy to deduce that languages that are spoken by a few hundred or thousand people are threatened by disappearance and obsoleteness. There are languages that are classified as operative while others are classified as highest priority languages. These vernaculars are mostly used by authorities, governmental and non-governmental organisations in reaching out to the residents that associate with these languages. There is a sizeable percentage of languages in the continent that is referred to as lingua franca due to the fact that they are spoken by multiple ethnic groups and are used either for regional or international communication.

Statement of the problem

Africans pride themselves as some of the people that have not lost their culture. Being African is something that makes Africans proud and is experienced in the uniqueness of their culture. However, present global forces have forced Africans to abandon their languages in favour of national languages in order to aid in the economic development of their countries. Ultimately, fluency in a national language means increased opportunity in acquisition of a good job and consequently a better life. The problem is that such acquisitions are inherently un-African as they do not propagate the African culture that is explicitly expressed and exchanged through local languages. This paper seeks to investigate the reason for the death of many African languages and the threat of more becoming extinct. The specific research question is: why are African languages disappearing?


Perhaps the greatest threat to the viability and use of African language are the colonial languages that are widely spoken in metropolitan areas. Apart from Arabic and Swahili that are truly international, African organisations are pushing for more languages to be supported so that they develop. Of the lingua franca in Africa, Lingala and Swahili have the characteristic of having been pushed by foreigners onto locals. Others including Hausa, Wolof, and Amharic have developed as a necessity and due to interactions between different people. The common characteristic of the lingua franca in Africa is that they were used by warrior group prior to colonisation and were adopted by colonisers as a way of communicating and controlling the native Africans.            Lodhi (1993) records that there are five broad categories in which African languages fall. They include the largest categories of Afro-Asiatic and Congo-Kordofanian languages that have common historical ties and the Nilo-Saharan, Malayo-Polynesian and Khoi-San.

Language is greatly influenced by national and regional boundaries. The current national boundaries were drawn up by colonial masters who did not consider the language spread in the regions they were carving up. The boundaries that were drawn up by the European colonisers were done without any participation or consultation of native Africans who were undoubtedly affected by the changes. In the Sahara and southern part of the continent, there are only three countries that have single mother tongues being spoken as national languages including Kirundi in Burundi, Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and Seswati in Swaziland. Additionally, only Somali transcends a number of countries including Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia. On the contrary, the country with the largest number of languages is Cameroon that has over 250 local languages.

The sheer number of local languages in Africa is a challenge for their development. The major problem is communication as some individuals are illiterate to the extent that they only understand the spoken word of their local languages. There is a major challenge in educating children using the many languages as well as ensuring political stability. Development of a language requires its continual usage and research. It is virtually impossible to produce materials, including books and other texts that can be used in teaching all the languages. The resource requirements notwithstanding, there would also be a need for individuals who are proficient in both the written and spoken language to be teachers in order to develop them. Most of the languages that have developed into lingua franca continue receiving attention as there are radio stations communicating in the language, print and other media. However, it would be unwise for a business such as a radio station to be set up just to broadcast to a few hundred people. Thus, the localization of some African languages has denied them extensive reach which has in turn lack the attraction of investors that are invaluable in the promotion of language.

The fact that Africa is a multi-linguistic continent in itself curtails the development of many languages. While there are not enough resources to develop the use of the many languages, there is a lot of time spent in translations between one language to another which slows down economic development (Evans, & Levinson, 2009). Thus, rural areas become areas where foreign investors shy away from due to difficulties in communication leading a sizeable percentage of the population in those areas to immigrate to cosmopolitan areas thus abandoning their local languages. As a result, fewer and fewer people are left communicating in the mother tongue eventually causing it to disappear.

The promotion of different languages by nation states instead of others has also contributed to the disappearance of local languages in Africa. In many countries, people communicate using three languages including their mothertongue, the lingua franca that is mainly used in societal exchanges and the national or official language which is usually the colonial language of the land. Due to the modern dynamics of living, people who are proficient in the national language are preferred for employment which has led many people to abandon their local languages in favour of the colonial languages that give them a chance at employment mostly in a white collar job. The continued development of the African continent and globalisation has exacerbated the disappearance of some African language due to a lack of incentive in developing or communicating in them. Of the countries in Africa, the majority, 22, have French as their national language, followed by English at 19, Arabic in 7, Portuguese in 5, and Spanish in 1. Most of these countries have other languages as official languages apart from these colonial languages including Chichewa in Malawi, Amharic in Ethiopia, and Swahili in the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern DRC. Additionally, Swahili is used in parts of Zambia, Malawi, Comoros and Mozambique.

Africa is a land that is cursed with wars. There is usually an armed conflict that is taking part in one part of Africa at any times. Presently, there are on-going conflicts in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, just to name a few. A new kind of conflict has also arisen like the abductions and incessant bombings by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon and Alshabaab in east Africa. These conflicts lead to exoduses of people from their residences of places of ancestry into other areas in search of security. The relocations usually have a negative effect on the local languages. People that have been forced to move usually end up in different areas where their mothertongues are not spoken. As such, they adopt communication in the lingua franca or the colonial language of the territory they are displaced to leading their own local languages to die. If the conflicts persist, as they often do, then, the languages are threatened by extinction due to disuse and lack of an ancestry or community to support it. In other instances, places that have been overrun by armies, militias or rebel groups may be forced to conform to the language of invaders. This leads to the death of the local languages in the invaded regions. Andreopoulos is credited with offering a working definition of the term linguicide, which he asserts is “forbidding the use of or other intentional destruction of the language of another people—a specific dimension of eth­nocide” (1994, p. 77). Thus, the action of people in forcing the use of their language on others is tantamount to the linguistic and cultural genocide of that culture.

The current dynamics in Africa make it one of the places where there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. People who have raked up enough wealth and move on to suburbs and other metropolitan areas due to ascension into the middle class are on the increase. The jump in the social class has led some people to abandon their local languages since they associate them with a lower social class (Bradley, & Maya, 2002). Children in many African societies born in urban areas are usually communicated in the lingua franca or the official national languages in all the areas of interaction. Thus, the preservation of language which is meant to be safeguarded by transference from parent to child is lost leading to decrease in the number of users, usually those in the rural areas or the elderly in cosmopolitan areas. Eventually, the language becomes extinct as the number of users reduces to a very small number that makes preservation difficult. In the modern society, a very interesting dynamic has emerged. It is common to find grandparents who are fluent in a number of local languages, a middle aged family with parents that speak both the national languages and the local languages and grandchildren that communicate in nothing but the national language. This means that there are families where grandparents and grandchildren are not fluent in the same languages. This has been caused by insistence on proficiency in languages that have economic value and abandonment of those that have cultural value.


That African languages are slowly dying is not in doubt. Many people are oblivious of the effects that death of a language has on culture and identity of a people. The first reason for the disappearance of African languages is the proliferation of the language of colonizers, which have become national languages in African countries. This has led to lack of investment in local literature using the local language in order to develop the languages. Furthermore, investors have failed to invest in infrastructure including different media to communicate with people in their local languages.


Many African countries have their written laws in national languages which have translated into teaching using these languages and also promoted their use in social gatherings. Some African leaders are of the opinion that promoting one language and one culture would be a solution to the many problems dogging the continent. The incessant fighting in African countries between different armed groups has either led to the displacement of whole communities thus forcing them to settle in areas where other local languages are spoken or has led to linguicide through forcing invaded communities to use the language of the invaders.

Another reason for the disappearing of African languages is the economic growth of different families which has led to cease of use of local languages as they are associated with poverty and a lower social class.


Andreopoulos, G. J. (ed.) (1994). Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bradley, D., & Maya, B. (2002). Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance. London: Routledge Curzon.

Evans, N., & Levinson, S. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (5), 429-492.

Lodhi, A.Y. (1993). The Language Situation in Africa Today. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 2(1), 79–86


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