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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 16:36 GMT
Are indigenous languages dead?
Old map of Africa
As the continent marks the Year of African Languages in 2006 to help promote the use of the mother-tongue, does it matter if Africa's indigenous languages are dying out?

Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent in the world, according to the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). People speak close to 2,000 different languages which is a third of the world's linguistic heritage.

New languages such as Kenya's sheng, a mixture of English, Swahili and mother-tongues, are emerging. But up to 300 languages have less than 10,000 speakers, which puts them on the UN's endangered list, and 37 are in danger of completely dying out in the next few years.

So, if people stop speaking the old languages, what, if anything, will be lost? Why do people create new languages such as sheng? How many languages do you speak? Do you know of a mother-tongue that no longer exists?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.


Your comments:

If I were to speak to my brother in our mother-tongue in a public place, this would be considered rude and bad manners, by Kenyan standards, at least. I think this is a shame, because by letting languages die we are letting a culture to die! Nevertheless it is good to have a unifying language. English has done this in this totally globalised world.
Musyoki Kimanthi, Nairobi, Kenya

It's our obligation as children of Africa to realise the need to preserve this treasure!
Bernard Loontasati, Johannesburg

I am Maasai-speaking from Kenya and living in South Africa. We learn Spanish, German, French and the others which are of minor significance to us, but no one learns African languages and as parents we don't take the chance to teach our own children the benefits of these indigenous languages. Sheng is an irrelevant sort of language that is bound to corrupt the minds of the young generations. It's our obligation as children of Africa to realise the need to preserve this treasure!
Bernard Loontasati, Johannesburg

New languages are emerging as a result of globalization. In my country we trying to promote teaching of mother tongue at primary school level. It is difficult to directly translate some English words to local languages, so the English words are maintained, resulting in sheng type language. I speak 8 local languages and three international. Children raised in urban areas are multilingual. They adapt new languages that may lead to loss of their own.
Sarah Mwandha, Mukono, Uganda

My mother tongue is Yoruba, my dialect is Ekiti, my first language is English. The one I speak and think in is English. I find though that I speak Yoruba more in the UK than I ever did in Nigeria. Speaking a different language makes you different. It's a feeling one needs in a minority environment. Due to inter marriage between cultures, English is often the only common language in a family! Exciting times though - very little literature is available in indigenous languages. How can we preserve it? Odi gba, Mo ki yin na.
Adetokunbo Olugbenga, London, UK

The African languages are still alive. However, this present generation could let it die away. For me the various languages in Africa, especially in Nigeria, has not brought unity and love but hatred and pain in our lives.
Chinwe Obiora, London, UK

Language is an important part of a society's culture. As a proponent of cultural diversity, I support the preservation of all 'mother-tongues'. However, in addition to one's mother tongue, I strongly advise the acquisition of an international language, whether it be English, French or Chinese. The ability to speak and international language provides better opportunities for work and life choices.
Rosemary Mullally, Kigali, Rwanda

I'm a UK citizen living in Uganda. I speak Luganda because I respect the people I live with, even though I had to learn it from scratch.
Peter, Mpigi, Uganda

The world is ailing from an illness: globalisation. The give-and-take dynamics of globalisation have seen African states give away more than they've received. African states are giving away their language, their culture, their identity.
Koome Kirimi, USA

All parents in Africa should teach their children their native language to prevent it from being extinct. At home, I speak my mother tongue as well as two others. I think it's important that one's language is maintained.
Secondo in Nebbi, Uganda

If languages brought unity, Nigeria would have be a united country. We have thousands of different languages which divide us. Good life will unite us.
Charles

Sheng' has become so common in Kenya that even president Kibaki finds himself speaking. He always say, 'nendeni mkajienjoy' which means go and enjoy yourselves.
Silas, Kenya

The native language of our people is not taught in our schools. It's such a shame.
Maada Salia, Kenema, Sierra Leone

Our languages are dying because some parents think to be modern is to learn the English language and therefore do not speak the local language with their kids at home. English is gradually becoming the first language in the homes of most working families in Ghana. I find it shameful when one can not speak a least one local language. But it not all bad, some of the local radio stations broadcast in local dialect and some people have made native languages their first choice of communication.
Ronning, Tema, Ghana

Some of my fellow countrymen are taking lessons in Cantonese to take advantage of the Chinese economic emergence. Perhaps Kenyans will soon be speaking "cantosheng"
Darlington Moshi, Nairobi, Kenya

As long as a nationhood is strengthened, then the more global languages like English and French, will be sufficient. Incidentally, some of my fellow countrymen are taking lessons in Cantonese, in order to take advantage of the Chinese economic emergence. Perhaps Kenyans will soon be speaking "cantosheng".
Darlington Moshi, Nairobi, Kenya

You can trace African tribal movements of previous centuries by looking at the language map. For instance the Barbeig tribe in central Tanzania speak the click language and have a similar culture to that of the famous tribe in South Africa. History tells us these South African Bantus migrated from the North probably as far as Sudan or Ethiopia.
Ibrahim Sareva, Oxford, UK

When it comes to languages, we as Africans are very rich indeed. In South Africa it is common for people to speak English and two or three African languages like Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho. We really have done well to make our indigenous languages official.
Brian Joubert, Pretoria, South Africa

Languages may unite a group but they also divide
Simon, UK

Many Sudanese refugees have come here to Adelaide and we have started classes teaching Bari language for the Bari, Mundari, Kakwa, Pojulu tribes. These classes are for the children to keep using their language and to learn about their culture. This is a fantastic way to keep the language and culture alive. Even Australians are learning Bari with this class. Does anyone know of another place outside Africa teaching Bari?
Susie, Adelaide, Australia

Languages may unite a group but they also divide. Given that most conflicts occur between two different groups, there is a strong argument for choosing unifying languages. These do not have to be European. Swahili sets a good example in East Africa.
Simon, UK

What worries me most is the disappearance of Geez, the Latin of the Horn of Africa Highlands. This Semitic Language is as old as Hebrew and Arabic. Geez is still used in the Coptic and Catholic churches both in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Tesfai, Amsterdam

Indigenous languages are slowly dying simply because we Africans believe that foreign languages are superior to our local languages. In Zimbabwe, English is considered a language of prestige and if you can't speak grammatically correct English then you are considered to be primitive. I believe we need to decolonise our minds in order to take pride and preserve our languages.
Harris Garikayi, Harare, Zimbabwe

Yes, in Tanzania indigenous languages are in the process of natural death, and that is to the advantage of nationhood and easiness of communication. I pray for the same to happen in other parts of Africa! In my view, a nation, to be called a nation, one of the most important trait is to have one language that originates in that nation. Indigenous languages are dying, and they should die to give way to national languages. A civilization cannot be built on millions of dialects that only play a dividing role in a nation. Kwaheri vilugha viva kiswahili lugha yetu! Goodbye to tiny languages and long live KiSwahili!
Muhoza Chiza, Mwanza, Tanzania

Stories that have been told for centuries can lose their meaning in translation
Angie, Cardiff
Indigenous languages are slowly dying simply because we Africans believe that foreign languages are superior than our local languages. In Zimbabwe , English is considered a language of prestige and if you can't speak grammatically correct English then you are considered to be primitive. I believe we need to decolonise our minds in order to take pride and preserve our languages.
Harris Garikayi, Harare, Zimbabwe

UNESCO estimates that in 50 years time everyone on the planet will be able to speak English. If this means the loss of indigenous languages, it also means the loss of thousands of year's worth of culture, heritage and tradition. I study Spanish and Japanese and am fascinated by language. Language is a living thing and I understand its need to grow and develop in its environment, hence the creation of new languages and dialects with mixed origins. It's a natural process, but it seems sad to lose so much. Stories that have been told for centuries can lose their meaning in translation and are very rarely repeated with the same level of feeling or fluidity. I'm Welsh, but speak very little Welsh. When my mother was born it was frowned upon to teach your children Welsh. English was forced upon our education system as a primary language, so there's a huge chunk of native Welsh who cannot speak Welsh Things are getting better however. There are more people learning Welsh and it's now part of our national curriculum. On a personal note, I intend to start learning Welsh, so I can help the language grow.
Angie, Cardiff, Wales

It is very obvious how African languages have been influenced by the Western world with the emergence of grafted languages like sheng and pidgin English. An example is the Yoruba language spoken in Western Nigeria, where you find a lot of speakers struggle ignorantly and unconsciously, muddling up the writing or speaking of this language with English words. However, it is noteworthy to recognise efforts of certain individuals or groups of people trying to rejuvenate these endangered languages - a sign that even the major languages are at threat!
Adewale Ajani, Nigerian in The Netherlands

When a language dies, the world loses a chunk of human creativity
Rebecca, Berkeley, USA

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal, currently a graduate student in linguistics, I must answer this question with an emphatic "yes." When a language dies, the world loses a chunk of human creativity. It loses the cultural subtleties that the language encodes, and it loses the unique worldview encoded in that language. Speakers of African languages like Badiaranke and Pulaar rely heavily on idiomatic expressions that are instantly accessible to other native speakers. Were speakers of these languages to abandon their language in favour of another, the culture may partially survive but its speakers' perception of the world and of themselves would simply vanish.
Rebecca, Berkeley, USA

I have been involved with the Mina language of Southern Togo. It is a creole language based primarily on the syntax of Fanti (with some Ga influence) and the vocabulary of Watchi (a dialect of Evhe). I wrote a Mina grammar book in 1969. It is 116 pages in length and is written in French. I also developed a small 1500 word dictionary that needs to be greatly expanded.
Philip de Barros, San Diego, USA

In Canada there were residential schools that the Aboriginal children had to attend. They had to speak English and were punished if they spoke "gibberish". A lot of native languages are almost extinct because of this policy.
Alan, Alberta

I'm Berber and since the first invasions of North Africa we've been struggling to keep our languages - Tamazight and Im Kabyle - from dying out. We've stopped the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and French from killing our language. It's more then just a language - it's our heritage, culture and history.
Massinissa, Algeria

I am a third generation American with a Euro-Jewish heritage. Thus I have an affinity for Yiddish of which I understand some but read little. I know the richness of expression in Yiddish and have little doubt that some of the 2000 African languages are similar in that respect. In the modern world communication is essential to advancement and survival. As part of our human heritage, these fading tongues should be recorded and archived but to attempt to preserve them through succeeding generations is an exercise in futility.
Art Wegweiser, USA

The world will not come to an end if this happens, but I'll miss it all the same
UE, UK/Nigeria
I am from the Ibibio tribe in the south east of Nigeria. What I find quite amazing about the Ibibio language is the extent to which it has evolved over the past couple of decades. Sentences are constantly punctuated with English words and phrases, if not with pidgin English and all manner of dialects. At this rate, I can't see it surviving for another generation. The world will not come to an end if this happens, but I'll miss it all the same.
UE, UK/Nigeria
I say let's get rid of the little dialects and empower our main languages
Khalil Djalal, Ottawa, Canada

Let the little languages die off and let Hausa and Swahili become the unifying tongues of vast regions. Let these languages become the languages of science, maths and bureaucracy instead of say, French or English. This would reduce ethnic tensions, strengthen a sense of pan-Africanism and ensure the survival of African civilization, through its tongues, in the globalized 21st century. I say let's get rid of the little dialects and empower our main languages.
Khalil Djalal, Ottawa, Canada

One problem facing indigenous African languages is the negative attitude of Africans living abroad. If Africans in the diaspora, especially Nigerians, do not encourage their children to speak some of these languages, who would? They need to borrow a leaf from their Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese counterparts who endeavour to speak English as well as their native languages with their children.
Tope Idowu, Houston, Texas, USA

Indeed Africa has many different languages but it is not our task alone to protect these languages what with globalization and the need for young Africans to keep pace with the rest of the world who speak either English, French or German. Moreover people in remote and impoverished areas can only depend on education provided by church or other religious missionaries and what other language is used as a means of communication other than that of the missionaries. If children and the youth don't have the opportunity to use their mother tongue how then can it survive?
Catherine, Tanzania.

I never knew the importance of knowing my language until I travelled and found I really wanted to relate to my people
Beatrice Sawie Hayes, Maple Grove, USA

In Liberia many, including myself, have forgotten how to speak my mother language, Kru. My mother spoke our local language only when our grandparents were visiting from the village. English is the only language I speak. This is affecting me a lot because I am not English, I am an African and I feel so lost. I am presently learning how to speak and write my language in a foreign land by reading every local book from my country. I never knew the importance of knowing my language until I travelled and found I really wanted to relate to my people.
Beatrice Sawie Hayes, Maple Grove, USA.

There are certain thoughts that I can express to my satisfaction only in my mother tongue.
Abdulai Musa, Lagos

My mother tongue is Uneme. It's a sub-dialect in Afenmai, which itself is related to the Bini language of Edo State in Nigeria. The Uneme people are less than 10,000. Yes, I speak impeccable English and I speak one of the dominant Nigerian languages, but both do not fully express my thoughts. There are certain thoughts that I can express to my satisfaction only in my mother tongue. So, it can be seen how deep the loss of this facility would be for the continuation of my personality, culture and way of life. The British colonial school system forbade the use of local languages, which it called "vernacular", but it continued with those who took over from them. Today, its effect can be seen in the inability of most of us to speak, write, sing, or trade in our various languages and dialects. Which is a pity indeed!
Abdulai Musa, Lagos, Nigeria

It is a pity that many educated elites in Africa feel that their children speaking fluent English and neglecting their mother tongues is another way to proof that they are civilized people. I grew up in south western Nigeria, where Yoruba is spoken, a language that is very rich. But you will discover that nowadays many children cannot even greet in Yoruba language.
Kolawole Elufisan, Pretoria, South Africa

Languages have been dying and new ones have been forming throughout history
Moges,USA
Languages have been dying and new ones have been forming throughout history. In Ethiopia at least a dozen of them have become extinct over the last three centuries such as Argoba, Mayya, Gaffat, Bizamo, Damot and most importantly Geez which is now used only in church readings just like Latin. Dead or dying Geez is survived by three new languages Amharic, Tigrigna and Guragigna. The last family of Argoba speakers was alive as late as the 1960's around the old city of Harar.
Moges, Washington DC, USA

I come from Togo, where people speak amongst themselves in local dialects such as Ewe, Kabye, Mina. Since the national language is French I think over the next decade or so these local languages will be gone in favour of French or English. I feel our languages should be given priority over colonial languages but the question is how do you choose a local language as an official language without been seen as favouring a certain tribe over the other. And with this national language are we going to be able to compete favourably with other nations in the world economy.
Aboni, London

At my school in Kenya the children didn't want to learn Kiswahili - they saw it as old-fashioned and only for the poor. I have friends who can barely communicate with their own grandparents.
Olali Ndamby, London, UK

Unless languages are written and adapted to describe developments in modern communications, in science and economics etc. most of our mother tongues will become extinct within the next decade.
Moses Cho, Bamenda,Cameroon

African local languages are hugely important in giving people an identity in a very rapidly changing world. The indigenous languages also carry much of the wisdom of the people who speak them. As the saying goes: "When an old man dies in Africa, it is like a library burning down." The fact that the Bible and other texts continue to be translated into African minority languages shows clearly that for many people it is these languages which speak to their hearts. Despite being an Englishman I'm very proud to be a speaker of an Ivorian language - Sokoweli (Kouya).
Eddie, Southampton UK

Africa has seen a lot of foreign investment in recent years creating jobs for the local people. Being able to secure these jobs and operate in an international market requires knowledge of the more primary languages like Swahili and English and this has put pressure on the survival of the more obscure 'village' dialects. While governments may have improved the reach of education to the rural areas, it is the dream of these youth to move into the cities and make it big, and that involves becoming fluent in the more widely spoken tongue such as English at the expense of their own mother tongues. While this maybe one reason why pidgins like Sheng develop to ease the integration, it is also at the risk of diluting and ultimately losing traditional languages. Africa is losing not only its linguistic heritage but the knowledge it has carried of different cultures, their history and roots.
Kavita Shah, London,UK

The more people there are who speak a language the more important that language is. Minority languages are surely going to die - up to now their only important and significant use is for UN statistics. It is very expensive to incorporate them into the education system hence very difficult to preserve then. And if incorporated they do not have economic use hence people are not interested in them.
Nevin Tunhuma, Netherlands

If a language is dying, it generally means that something is amiss
Michael, UK

Languages are not only a purely functional tool. They mean much more in human society from being a tool of social cohesion and group identity, an encoding of a different view of the world, a database of information on the world and much more... like a biological species dying out, if a language is dying, it generally means that something is amiss, whether that is a power struggle in society, social or economical imbalances or in the worst case, genocide because no people gives up its language purely on a whim. So yes, we should care about "small" languages.
Michael, UK

Colonialism, slavery and neo-colonialism are to blame. We identify our selves as Europeans and thus our languages disappear. We have no African identity. People in the UK get shocked when I talk to my fellow tribesmen in English and even wonder why I speak very good English.
Andrew, UK

The culture of civilisation is gradually helping the extinction of indigenous languages. A lot of people in the city find it very difficult to speak their native languages to even their children. Most times you can only know that somebody is Mende or Temne by the type of name he/she carries. Some people feel it's shameful to speak their native tongue in public. Even with the introduction of modern languages in the school's curriculum if people fail to speak their native tongues to their children, then indigenous languages will extinguish gradually.
Andrew Jerome Josiah, Freetown, Sierra Leone

Unless minority groups are protected and respected, some languages will die out
Wathum Gilbert, Uganda
Some people are afraid to speak their language to hide their true identity or win favours. Unless minority groups are protected and respected, some languages will die out.
Wathum Gilbert, Uganda

Languages are useful for communication, and only communication. If a language is spoken by only a few, it is not performing its function.
Ben Sirolly, Tobyhanna, USA

In my country Sierra Leone tribes like yalunka, krim, galiness no longer exist. History tells me that I am krim by tribe but not even my parents can say hallo in the language. Another tribe Kissy is on the verge of extinction slowly being swallowed up by Mende, the country's largest tribe.
Sylvester Suaray, London, UK





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