Multilingualism in Africa

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.


Africa’s endangered languages


Ethnologue lists Nigeria as having 15 endangered languages, which is perhaps not surprising as it is the most linguistically rich country in Africa. UNESCO lists 14 as critically endangered, among them the Yangkam.

The Yangkam language is critically endangered, having only 100 speakers in 1996, and falling every year. Found in the Plateau state of Nigeria, it’s mostly those over 50 that still speak the language. Most indigenous Yangkam have shifted to speaking Hausa but maintain their Bashar identity. They are predominantly Muslim.

It is not clear how many speakers are left today.


Almost just as linguistically diverse as Nigeria, at 15, it has the highest number of critically endangered languages in Africa.

Of the critically endangered languages, Bikya and Bishuo are listed as having only one speaker left in 1986, therefore at the highest risk of extinction.

The rest include Akum, Bakole, Baldemu, Bung, Busuu, Cambap, Dimbong, Hijuk, Majera, Mono, Ndai, Njerep, Somyev and Zumaya.

Central African Republic

The country has three critically endangered languages, Birri, Bodo and Geme.

The Bodo, a language of the Bantu family, had 15 speakers left in 1996 and is nearly extinct. Located in the Haut-Mbomou Perfecture, Ethnologue reports that here were no more than three Bodo Bantu speakers per village.

Birri had 200 speakers left in 1996 while Geme had 500 in the same year.


The East African country has three critically endangered languages left: The Yaaku, Elmolo and Omotik.

The Elmolo people live along the shores of Lake Turkana in the country’s north west. Matthias Brenzinger in the book Language Death suggests that their language was Cushitic in origin, but as they began to get assimilated by the neighbouring Samburu community, the language began to evolve into ElMolo-Samburu, a Nilotic blend of the two languages. According to Ethnologue, there were only eight speakers of this language left in 1994.

Also called ‘Mukogodo’, the Cushitic-affiliated Yaaku are a hunter-gatherer group that settled in the Mukogodo forest in Kenya. While transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to pastoralism, the group decided to give up their old language at the beginning of the 1930s in favour of Maaasai. The language shift, according to Brenzinger, happened for a couple of reasons.

Being hunter-gatherers, they lived on game and honey hunting, which brought them problems during the colonial period when hunting became ‘poaching’. Thus, it became unwise to identify themselves as hunters.

Another reason is because they did not own cattle, they were considered by the neighbouring Maasai as poor, primitive and ‘living like animals’. These prejudices led the Yaaku to want to assimilate into the Maasai community. Only 50 speakers were left as at 1983.

The Omotik are also in the Rift Valley and were absorbed by the neighbouring Maasai. It had 50 speakers left in 1980 and is nearly extinct.


Ethnologue lists the country as having six critically endangered languages: Berakou, Noy, Massalat, Buso, Mabire and Goundo. However, Berakou, which had two speakers left in 1995 (all above the age of 60) is now listed as extinct by UNESCO. Most of the Berakou shifted to Chadian Arabic, Babalia Creole Arabic or Kotoko languages.

Mabire, with a population of 3 speakers in 2001, is likely to be extinct soon.


The country has 90 individual languages of which one, Ongota, is the most critically endangered. According to Ethnologue, it had eight speakers in 2007. Located in the southeast Omo region, the speakers are older adults who are not supportive of the language’s maintenance, nor are they passing it down to the younger generation.


The country has 13 individual languages. One of these, Boon, is nearly extinct. Boon roughly translates to ‘alien’ or ‘inferior’. According to Bernhard Helander in his book Vulnerable Minorities in Somalia and Somaliland, the Boon were outsiders composed of different groups who were adopted by other clans.

Despite their full integration into their new clans, some were still regarded as second class citizens and were subject to some forms of prejudice. The Boon speakers were 59 as at 2000.

South Africa

Africa’s largest economy has 13 listed individual languages according to Ethnologue. Three of these, Korana, Xiri and N|u are critically endangered.

The N|u (or Khomani) are related to the Khoisan hunter-gatherer group. About six speakers are left in 2013. The younger generation speak Nama or Afrikaans. The Korana and Xiri are also related to the Khoisan.


Namibian black German – This is a form of pidgin spoken by Namibians who worked for German colonial administrators but didn’t learn proper German. It is listed as a critically endangered language although it’s not clear how many speakers remain at present.


How should Africa teach its multilingual children?

The African child normally starts to struggle at school when he is about ten or 11 years old, at the beginning of the fifth year of primary school. Up until then most of his lessons were in his home language except for English (or another ex-colonial language), which is taught as a subject. Then it all changes. All of his classes are taught in English and because he does not use English very much apart from in school, he begins to fall behind, despite working hard. He thinks that perhaps he is just not a very good student, but what he does not know is that his teacher has also started to struggle because she has a limited understanding of English as well.

It’s a story of linguistic confusion played out across Sub-Saharan Africa every day. For decades, it has been known to African academics such as Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose of Ibadan University as a root cause of children not fulfilling their potential, and has been tackled by African organisations such as the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), UNESCO and the British Council.

The usual approach is based on an assumption (or red herring, according to Bamgbose) that, as early as possible, a child needs to be taught in a language that they will need for education at higher levels – particularly in order to access science and technology – to do business in a globalised world, and to engage actively as a citizen in wider society, including taking part in elections. Underpinning these arguments is a perceived need to use an ‘official’ language to unify a nation. More often than not, the official language chosen is an ex-colonial one. However, using a language of instruction that neither the teacher nor learner understands or uses particularly well produces poor results.

Many parents believe in this assumption and do not want their children educated in the local language. Some will say that this is because the parents themselves don’t understand the damage that can be done if a child is educated in a language they don’t understand. Certainly, UNESCO promotes the idea of mother tongue instruction. Indeed, since 1953, they have maintained that language is crucial for the development of individuals and societies, and therefore learning in one’s own language is a fundamental right.

Which language should African children be taught in?

UNESCO believes that the best way to educate children is through their mother tongue or home languages. However, some argue that producing learning materials in a variety of African languages is too costly in economic terms. Then there is the issue of the languages themselves. In South Sudan, for example, many languages are not even written down, and those that are often lack standardised orthographies, or writing systems. The major languages such as Dinka and Bari, which are spoken by 1.5 million and 800,000 people respectively, each have very little written in them. As a result, there is no tradition of written literature or journalism.

Organisations such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and the Ministry of Education have prepared a number of readers and basic text books for some languages, but there is an additional challenge to produce text books for subjects such as mathematics and science.

The new African language programmes in development

Various African initiatives have been developed to encourage governments to make greater use of African languages, including in the education system. ACALAN has identified 12 cross-border languages for use in regions across the continent, together with inherited ex-colonial languages. Examples include Lingala and Beti-Feng for Central Africa and Chichewa and Sestwana for Southern Africa.

The idea is to get African languages being used as a medium of instruction, just as English is in British schools, and Kiswahili is in Kenya. For example, the Bari language in South Sudan contains five or six distinct dialects that are sometimes called ‘languages’. However, all speakers can understand one another and it is quite possible, according to some linguists, to standardise the different dialects to create one written language which could be used by speakers of all the Bari ‘languages’. This phenomenon, not unlike the Scandinavian languages, is common in Africa.

The use of mother tongue in the early stages elicits a range of opinions. Some say African languages should be used as the medium of instruction throughout primary level. Others favour an ‘early exit’ model whereby an African language is used for the first three or four years of schooling and then replaced by the official foreign language, which has previously been taught as a subject. A common problem with this latter approach is that children are rarely able to learn sufficient English to allow them to cope with the transition into English as the language of instruction in the fourth or fifth year of primary school, when most children are between nine and 11 years old.

What’s the solution?

It could be said that no country has got it right. In South Africa, for example, there are 11 official languages and the Ministry of Basic Education is introducing a policy whereby all speakers of English and Afrikaans must learn an African language in school. In Kenya, where Kiswahili is used as a lingua franca, this causes some confusion for some children since it is not their mother tongue. So, many Kenyan children are still being educated in a language that isn’t their own even though it is an African language. Uganda uses an early exit model, but in urban schools English is the medium of instruction in all classes and the local language is taught as an additional language.

Some suggest that the choice of language should be decided at school and community level and that the people themselves make the choice of which languages to use. This approach, it is argued, will most realistically reflect the languages used in the community.





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