We’d have a better chance of preserving Africa’s dying languages if we learned their history

In 2008, on his first visit to China and India after taking office as prime minister, Britain’s Gordon Brown announced a plan to promote the English language across the world. Brown said he launched a website that would develop the skills of 750,000 teachers, and help two billion people learn English by 2020.

“English does not make us all the same,” Brown noted, but “it makes it possible for us to speak to each other, to better understand each other and so it is a powerful force not just for economics, business, and trade but for mutual respect and progress.”

Brown’s radical plan was considered one of the biggest initiatives in recent times to endorse English as a global language. But 60 years after independence, that’s a luxury rarely afforded to the majority of African languages. Instead of securing a firm place in our daily lives, indigenous languages have instead suffered delegitimization at social, economic, and political spheres. The expanded study of African languages has also been recent, with a majority of the scholarship taking place in European and North American universities. Significant books about Africa’s languages and literary explorations are mostly published by Western publishers like Harvard University, Ohio, and Oxford University Press.

Besides, much of the literature about the history of African languages is also inaccessible to young people—and readers—across the continent. And while research shows the cognitive advantage of knowing more than one language, students of African languages at higher institutions have drastically diminished over the years. As such, the debates about who defines a language, who can claim it, and how it affects a community or a country’s past and present is not being probed or vigorously unpacked.

Read more: Quartz Africa

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