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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 21:32 GMT
Should there be one official African lingua franca?




There are said to be more than 1000 indigenous African languages.

News and Information for Africa
Among the most widely spoken are sub-Saharan languages such as Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, and Zulu of the Niger-Congo family; Kunama, Shilluk, Dinka, and Nuer of the Nilo-Saharan family; and Oromo, Somali, and Hausa of the Afro-Asiatic languages.

There are also important lingua francas which incorporate Arabic and European loanwords like Swahili, and Lingala. A rich mix you might well say.

Some, however, claim this wealth of tongues is holding Africa back, in a way similar to the biblical ''tower of Babel''. And it's suggested, in some quarters, that what Africa needs quickly is one official lingua franca, which will be understood all across the continent within a generation.

Proponents of this few view cite the close correlation between the granting of national language status to Swahili in postcolonial Tanzania and that country's impressive literacy rates and success in managing inter-ethnic tensions.

What do you think? Does Africa need an official lingua franca? Is this even possible? What language could or should it be: English? Swahili? Arabic? French? Yoruba? Zulu? And why?


Your Reaction

Why don't we also recommend one language for Asia or Europe? Actually while we are at it we should just have one language for the whole world: Chinese. Our language and culture are part of who we are. By keeping our languages we help preserve our culture and identity. Change your language now and a generation from now you won't even find a person with a real African name; everyone will be John and Mary. And for whose benefit is this change being advocated? For the West: it makes it easier to lump us all together. All Black, all one language = easier marketing.
Ermias Serekeberhan, Ethiopia

I am a federalist. I strongly believe that we Africans will overcome many problems if we can think globally and act locally. The idea of having one African language is a very good one. This is also a part of the agenda of the African Federalist Movement (AFM). May God Bless Africa.
Ibrahima Coulibaly, Cote d'Ivoire (Living in the USA)

How do you explain the fact that Latin America which has two "lingua franca's" (i.e Spanish & Portuguese) does not have at least one Superpower? Can the notion of one lingua franca really solve Africa's problems?
Tchetche Zagoley, USA

A workable federation (preserving all languages within them) with a single monetary unit is a better idea. This, in the long run will make the idea of a lingua franca a breeze when everybody is happy about their lives.
Freddy Hutchful, Canada

I thought there already was. Corruption and greed. They certainly are all fluent in theft.
Jez, Europe

To have one language in common is good and I support the idea. Regarding what language should that be? I will say English. The reason is that English is the most developed and widely spoken foreign language in Africa (even in the French speaking countries).
Alemu Tadesse, Ethiopia

Africa is a big continent so please do not waste your time thinking the continent to have one African lingua franca. Asia, Europe and both Americas have several different languages and yet the sizes of each continent are smaller than Africa. The only thing Africa has in common among its countries is less modern economic developments, due to its resources being sold for cash value that is deposited in foreign banks.
T M Gebre, USA

Yes, Africa needs a common lingua franca. This should be English. The world is turning towards a common language and English would become the stable language. However, every native language would need to be preserved
Uduaghan Victor, Nigeria

I find the whole idea of lingua franca for the African continent a fruitless exercise. Certainly, Africa has numerous problems but I don't think that the lack of a common language is one of them. In fact, its discussion may further contribute to its under development. Does anyone think that Europe or even India, not to mention Asia, should speak one language? What Africa needs is better education.
Duh, Canada

If speaking a different language is not a problem for Europe and they survived until now. Then it is not a problem for Africa? What we are struggling is for equality and freedom. We are not free from direct and indirect influence of European colony. That is still remaining a major problem for Africa.
Ayele, F, Ethiopia

I am totally disappointed in your listing of prominent African languages. What about Amharic, the oldest and the only African language, with its indigenous alphabet and numbering system.
Demissew Gedamu, USA

I don't think that the large number of languages in Africa has any thing to do with Africa's backwardness. What Africa needs first of all, is a creative method that consolidates the continent into one nation. Then there must an effort toward the creation of a single currency. After that, an official language that is globally spoken may be considered as the language of commerce and communciation for Africa. Meanwhile, indigenous languages still may be encouraged in the various countries, because of the high rate of illeteracy in many African countries. Also, the need for quality leadership in African countries that's devoid of corruption, human rights abuses and nepotism must be an issue of continental discussion on a political level as another step toward taking Africa from its current spate of retrogression. Thank you, BBC Focus On Africa for giving Africans an opportunity to share ideas that could build for them a better and more stable Africa in the next century.
MOHAMED YAHYA SILLAH, U.S.A

It does not make sense, at linguistics standpoint, the issue of lingua franca. Languages can vary according to individual speech, geography and time. Swahili itself is spoken differently in different places. Zanzibar Swahili is certainly not the same one that is spoken in Kivu (eastern Zaire). Bantu, Slav, Germanic, Semitic languages were the same but they "differentiated" due to migration. In other words it is impossible to have one language since language is a "local way of communication"(common Americans and the British speak different sorts of English).
Avelino M. de Freitas, Angola

If our leaders can sit and discuss African interest with a common goal and all the rebel leaders can start towards a common development of Africa then Africa with one common language will be necessary. This will strengthen the OAU and the formation of United State of Africa.
Junias Kalimbo, Namibia

A lingua franca will serve as a unifying force for Africa. Nations and ethnic groups should work together and agree on one language for education and communication. It will help commerce and interactions among Africans. The sad thing is that that ethnic groups will now selfishly hold tightly to what they will call their "rich cultural heritage" and forget the "big picture" inherent in Africans coming together under one umbrella of a unifying language.
Dr. Joseph U. Igietseme, Atlanta, USA



How many of you would willingly give up your language and with it your national soul?
Val, USA
How many of you would willingly give up your language and with it your national soul? Imagine the English, French, Swedes etc embracing German for the good of Europe? Not on? So why even think Africans should do what no one else is willing to do? A widely spoken second language, for example English, might be a good idea.
Val, USA (born and raised in Africa)

I was not aware that Europe, South America, North America or any other region had an official language. Please do not stop at Africa alone when it comes to equating prosperity with language. We may as well conclude English (American or British) has become the lingua franca of choice in business and many other multi-national endeavours. Perhaps all of Africa may consider the model.
Will, USA

Whether we have one language or not will is not the answer to our problems, we need to have leaders who are not corrupt and who attend to the needs of the masses. The only way for us to solve our problems is to break the boundaries set up by the Europeans and to try to make attempts to integrate our currencies etc. Having one language will never unite us.
Dudzai Mauchaza, Zimbabwe

The continent has gone through a lot over the centuries and will welcome any change that will improve the standard of living of those in the continent. Widely Swahili is spoken in the east Arabic in the North, Pidgin or broken English in the west, which is good enough for commerce as long as they can communicate with each other. What Africa needs is to unite its resources to build one giant economy. The resources are there and I do not see why they should not.
Babila Gwanyalla, United States

Sooner or later, the entire world will speak English. It's the language of the Internet and of International trade, and of the world's richest and most powerful countries. Many Europeans already speak it as an "official" second language, and this trend will continue, driven by the unstoppable commercial forces of Hollywood, Disney, McDonalds, etc. All other languages will eventually go the way of the UK's other tongues - into history or small backward areas. I don't think this is a good thing, but it is inevitable. Nothing can stand against western consumerism, not governments, languages, not even religion. Welcome to the Third Age!
Jack Howard, UK

My opinion is that Africa has lagged behind in every category of World development base on our inability to realise that recognition, development, and prosperity in the World is largely depended on true unity and commitment. I agree that Africa should have one lingua franca on one hand or each sub-region should have a general lingua franca. This will enhance co-operation and development. It will leave us with a true identity and originality.
Patrick T. Morris, Liberia



I find the notion of lingua franca discourteous and it simply strikes a broken chord amongst my list of priorities. How does one expect us as a continent to progress with the introduction of lingua franca
Effe Hagan, UK
One joy of being African is the different types of languages which undoubtedly creates a unique sense of identification between the different countries, at times to the envy of those outside. The English language without a doubt opens many gates to opportunities and as universal as this may seem, let's not forget the level of complexity and history that encompasses languages in Africa. Whose idea is this? Before leaping into the lion's den, why don't we be more attentive to development issues affecting the majority of us i.e. corruption, poverty, education just to name a few. I find the notion of lingua franca discourteous and it simply strikes a broken chord amongst my list of priorities. How does one expect us as a continent to progress with the introduction of lingua franca? Instead, we ought to be vigorously encouraging if anything at all the English language otherwise we'll be playing catch up with the Western World forever
Effe Hagan, UK

Doesn't anyone remember Esperanto? How far did that go and where is it today? Language is a living thing, which's why the French say 'langue vivante'. How on earth can we all speak the same language and what's more, why on earth should we even aspire to such? Our diversity is our wealth, we have to begin to understand this and not use it as an excuse for senseless violence.
Kemi Robinson, Nigeria



How on earth can we all speak the same language and what's more, why on earth should we even aspire to such? Our diversity is our wealth

Dominic Okonkwo, Nigeria

I think Africa is a great continent just like it's counterparts, Lingua franca or no Lingua franca all we need is peace and unity, good education etc. Since other continents can progress with numerous languages I believe Africa can equally do the same.
Dominic Okonkwo, Nigeria

How can we have a universal language in Africa when there is little or non-existent education? How can we possibly hope to implement such a program with rampant tribalism, ethnic conflict and corruption? The French and British colonialism left its scar upon the continent, if there should be one African language it should definitely be of African origin. Good luck. What's next? A single African currency called the "Afro".
Kevin Hagens, United States

I believe English should be used throughout Africa but not as a replacement of inherited mother tongue. Let's face it English does not belong to England. English is an international language. English was adopted as a common language and more vocabularies are added daily by incorporating foreign ones and adopting trendy words. Having said all of this in favour of using English throughout Africa, I must say that I am extremely against relegating our mother tongue to second place. Our children must be taught our mother tongue throughout school life. Our tradition and culture has been lost to the bandits that looted us in form of colonisation.
A K Oke, UK

I believe this could be a good long-term project. As it may facilitate regional integration. Kiswahili would be a good choice at least in my region East Africa. Also, I do disagree with you on the notion that Kiswahili is of an Arab origin.
Liban Mahamed, Somalia (currently in the USA)

Yes that will be nice and I support any language the majority wants to speak.
Sorie Kanu, Sierra Leone

I believe that Africa should convert to one language, however being that it is very difficult to choose one they should stick with English and French. That way they will become a greater part of the "modern" world.
Cristina Picardi, Italy

Lingua franca for Africa at this juncture, is neither feasible nor necessary, but if Africa is desperately seeking a working language, it should opt for Swahili, a widely spoken indigenous African language; the latter can adopt Geez (Ethiopic) as its script.
Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D., USA [country of origin, Ethiopia]

Africa should have at least one language that is common among all her inhabitants. The successful adoption of one national language by all the African states would be the biggest step towards achieving viable regional markets. It would also help ease the perennial tension caused by ethnic and tribal misunderstanding, as is clearly evident among the ethnically diverse youth that harmoniously co-exist in the cities and urban centres of Africa.
Kairu N., Kenya

Africa is fine with it's wealth of languages. Our setback is that we, as a people, do not realise how deep colonisation has affected us. Instead of having an unnecessary worry, such as language maybe we should also be a on the whole a lot more conscious of what we are very rapidly losing by reinforcing colonial ways of living.
Tipa, California



African lingua franca should be "education"! Only through education will there be economic development and social progress in Africa.
Walter Hough, San Francisco, USA
The official Having one language is surely one of the solutions to Africa's problems. There is a need to ensure that the diversity of thought and culture borne of local languages is not lost. Perhaps the answer lies in there being a requirement that English is the mandatory second language - or the language of business and government (similar to India). And I say "English" (as opposed to French or Arabic) not because I am British, but because it is clearly the de facto language of business and government in a large part of the world already.
Mark M. Newdick, USA/UK

Maybe we should try and focus on more important issues in Africa. Such as unemployment, education and poverty. I believe hunger is a universal language?
Richard Randall, South Africa



Africa is a huge continent with a very great diversity so a lingua franca would obliterate the huge wealth of culture embedded in the ancient languages.
Charles Osuagwu, Kuwait
The idea of lingua franca in Africa is nonsense. Africa is a huge continent with a very great diversity so a lingua franca would obliterate the huge wealth of culture embedded in the ancient languages. Language is not Africa's problem but selfish leadership and religious hegemony
Charles Osuagwu, Kuwait

Somalis speak one language. So do all Banyarwanda (whether from Rwanda all the neighbouring countries). Just these two cases destroy the myth of language as something of a unifying factor. You may misunderstand each other when you don't speak the same language, but you may also do so despite a common language.
John Ngendanyoye, Switzerland

The Soweto riots in South Africa in the 70s were triggered by black pupils' desire to be taught in English (not Afrikaans). They recognised that English gave them access to the most powerful global culture even in the days before the Internet. English may not be the most widely-spoken mother tongue, but it is certainly the most common SECOND language.
Ginger, UK (formerly South Africa)



I feel English should be spoken in all African Countries because most people already speak the language.
D. C. Siamuwele, UK
I feel English should be spoken in all African Countries because most people already speak the language. I personally feel it would be folly to start learning a new language at this point.
D. C. Siamuwele, UK

There is more to language than language itself. Language is also the ultimate embodiment of a people's identity. Each language should be preserved. That means each language should be made a working language at least on a local level. This could go hand in hand with a selection of an official lingua franca for Africa. And what should that language be? Of course it could be none other than Amharic. Amharic has been the official language of multinational Ethiopia for the last 1000 years. Africans are morally obliged to build on that base. There is no need to start from scratch.
An Amhara, Ethiopia

Language is relevant to area and so choice should be with region. It would be helpful to have a language which is universal although it cannot be forced.
C. Duncan, Scotia

Africa already has a common international language - English, same as the rest of the world.
Paul, UK



Being black and African does not mean we are the same people.
William Landford, Liberia
First before you suggest that African use one language to communicate, you should first of all start in Europe before we start in Africa. Why don't you suggest that you English start using Russian as your lingua franca. Being black and African does not mean we are the same people. I will never leave my Grebo language for Swahili nor Hausa as you are suggesting.
Let all of Asia speak Chinese, we Africans will stay with our diverse tongues. See ya. If you get along with your Irish brethren, then I will start with my East African brother to share the same language. I don't think language is Africa's problem, corruption and mismanagement is our problem.
William Landford, Liberia

Africa, which is the continent where human beings came first, has to be proud of such a linguistic diversity. Hence, there is no need at all to establish an unique language for the whole continent, at a moment where all efforts should be focused on economic development which will come through emancipation from developed country imperialism.
Thus, African countries could take example from the European experience, where linguistic diversity is more like an asset, in an environment of political and economic agreement between people and leaders. This has been made possible because clear goals of political targets and economic growth have been conceived, with no implication on people's identity (language, religion...).
Thiemle Fahona, Madagascar

Your mother tongue forms a significant part of your heritage, something to be proud of. The diversity of language and culture is what makes the world a wonderful place. Why on earth language is deemed a factor in preventing growth in Africa, I do not know. The real problem is the leadership which is, in most countries, oppressive, disgraceful and riddled with corrupt and greedy officials in a non-democratic political environment.
Gareth, UK

Having an African lingua franca will still not solve the problem of intolerance. People would still identify themselves as belonging to a certain tribe as is the case today. if ethnic conflict in Africa or elsewhere in the world is ever to be eliminated, people must be taught to respect other ethnicity and learn that these petty differences are not worth fighting over.
Andrew, USA



There must also be an international African language, so blacks world wide can understand each other and take pride in Africa.
George Morris, Jamaica (now in Mexico)
All Africans should speak any of the common African languages, along with a common world language, for external communication. There must also be an international African language, so blacks world wide can understand each other and take pride in Africa.
George Morris, Jamaica (now in Mexico)

Can you imagine how Africa sounds boring if people spoke the same in Cairo, Cape Town, Mogadisho or Dakar? If multi-languages didn't stop Europeans from progress why would it will to Africans? Today, If we think of one language God knows what the next idea will be ....maybe one religion or some sort of ....isms. Diversity shall help Africa conquer its shortcomings and misfortunes be it natural or man made.
Salih Nur Ahmed, Canada

Why not? If it worked in other parts of the World notably USA, Europe etc. Bridging the gap in language difference certainly would put to rest once and for all the racial pride which is an anathema to social development. Consequently, our energies would be focused on the over all development of the Continent. This tribal harmony has been translated positively in Tanzania and it paid visible dividends.
OB Silla, Gambian in USA

Language is not Africa's problem. Patriotic Leadership is the problem Africa has today. Please, stop this detraction to the real issues.
Thomas, USA

Why should there be one lingua franca for Africa? Africa is probably the most diverse continent in the world. Europe, Asia and North America don't have a single language, why should Africa? Why this push toward homogeneity?
Brian Farenell, USA

Multi-lingualism is not an obstacle; it is a challenge. I have not met an African who has refused to learn another language. I don't think imposing a super-language on Africans will change anything. Every African child who goes to school learns a language that is different from the one spoken at home, but that does not automatically kill the native language. Why do you think a super-language will change the way people view themselves? Just as how making English or French the official language has not turned us into Englishmen or Frenchmen, a new African super-language will not make us more African than we are.
Epie, USA

Having more than 1000 different languages is a treasure by itself. What Africa needs is strong leadership to bring the people together and focus on development and social reforms.
Fikre Bizuneh, Ethiopia, USA

I believe adopting a common language for Africa will go a long way to solve some of our differences which are most of the time very petty. Compared to a number of continents we are about the only one with so many different national languages. This l believe has led to a sense of misdirection because for a start we do not know which language to use. I have never believed that l have been able to express myself thoroughly to another person's understanding because l believe that the most expressive medium of culture is through the language spoken.
Kwaku Henaku, United Kingdom

Africa has enough problems to worry about than the trivial issue of a common language. Economic development, peace and stability, health, etc are the main issues that should be discussed.
Justin Chisenga, Nambia

The suggestion that a lingua franca would eliminate ethnic tensions in Africa completely overlooks the fact that Africans, when learning a European language, remain bi-lingual. Speaking English, French or Portuguese might ease bureaucratic procedures, but it won't stop people identifying themselves as Hausa, Xhosa, Senoufo, or whatever. A unifying language is helpful for school study, but nothing more.
Noo Saro-Wiwa, UK

Like the rest of the world, Africans need to be able to communicate with each other in order to promote development. This does not mean the creation of a lingua franca is necessary, since a common language will be adopted, English more likely than any other. To chose politically and impose one language would simply cause friction and not lead to any improvement in communication
Ana, Portugal

I find this idea very offending indeed. God knows Africa has lots of problems but having different languages and cultures is not one of them. In fact you can say it is the only thing going for it. If you look at Europe, they have had 2 major World Wars, countless numbers of conflicts that have claimed 100s of millions of lives. In comparison you might say Africa have lived relatively peacefully. So why should language be a problem? We are not living in the colonial times.
Feseha, Ethiopia

The Africans like anybody else are not now and especially in the future confined to their continent but sooner or later are using internet and other communication and travel means available. To gain a universal benefit without binding themselves into a restricted group of language or culture there is only one lingua franca and that is English. The rest like French and German are simply selfish, snobbish and waste of true international effort. Forcing everybody in Africa to learn a universal African language would be a total waste of education ability. Same applies to all Esperanto's that are dead ducks. I still fail to understand why people try to create artificial languages when English is so easy that even a Finn can learn it, so why not an Africans?
Mikko Toivonen, Finland



A unified language that includes words from all the ethnic Nationalities, no matter how small will be a sellable idea.
Kienuwa Obaseki, Nigeria
A combination of Africa ethnic nationalities is what will work for Africa. Any attempt to impose a foreign language will be resisted. We must understand times have changed. The only reason Africans speak English, French, Spanish and Portuguese languages is because we were conquered by the Europeans and forced to learn what ever language the prescribed. When Nigeria came up with WAZOBIA, which is a combination of the three big ethnic nationalities, Igbo, Hausa, and Yorubas, it was resisted or was dead on arrival. People such as the Edos who live on past glory-based on conquest and colonisation of even the major ethnic nationalities, will not accept such an imposition.
At this juncture, a unified language that includes words from all the ethnic Nationalities, no matter how small will be a sellable idea. That can then be the selling slogan for all the nationalities to buy into. However, Africa current problem is one of Nationalities issues and not language, military, or democracy. Many nationalities do not feel included or buy which ever democracies imposed on them. That is fake democracy is more poisonous that autocracy.
Kienuwa Obaseki, Nigeria

For one thing, it would be impossible to choose a single language for all of Africa, an enormously culturally, religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse continent. Secondly, it is not necessary. Europe thrived without a single language. Large parts of East Asia have thrived without a single language. A single language may help in certain elements of development, but it is hardly a prerequisite for national or regional success. Africa's problems are far too numerous and complex to be solved or even ameliorated by the selection of a single continental language.
Rath Andor, USA

Choosing any language would be contentious, and English is not an easy language for Africans to learn, but look at the benefits that are enjoyed by those countries who are part of the English-speaking world, especially the Indian sub-continent.
Gordon, Scotland

Just to think about having one language on a Continent the size of Europe is ridiculous. Are we going to suggest that we have one global language like Spanish, which has the largest percentage of spoken language in the world?
Mike Still, UK

Europe seems to be managing acceptably well with numerous different languages. Why should Africa be any different? In any case governments and supranational bodies would be largely impotent when it came to imposing such a change, in the highly unlikely event that everyone could agree on a common language. It's all too late though. Has anyone spoken to Microsoft about this? Bill Gates's sprawling empire has already settled the issue of a global language, namely a corrupt form of English.
Chris Klein, UK

Such a language exists, namely Esperanto. It has been in existence since the 1880s, when it was conceived to fulfil precisely the needs you describe. It is politically neutral, not being a national or ethnic language. Its grammar is extremely simple and without exceptions, as is its spelling, so that it can be learnt in as little as one or two hundred hours. Its vocabulary is based on Indo-European roots, which makes it recognisable for the many Africans who have at least a smattering of English, French or Portuguese. It is already written and spoken worldwide by at least several hundred thousand people. Literature in Esperanto is available, both original and translated. It might well be the solution to the problem, and it is available now.
Peter Kempees, Europe

If most Africans are going to have to learn a new language then it might as well be English, since that is what the rest of the world is heading for. However, I don't really see why they should be obliged to have a common language any more than the Europeans.
Graham Bell, Brazil

The idea is unfeasible. You wouldn't turn round and insist everyone speak English in the EU and drop their own language. Each country has its own language which is an inherent part of its culture. This must be respected.
Alex, England

There are some important languages, in the African context, which are forgotten/left out. These languages are important because they have their own Written alphabets and numerals. To mention the ones I know, Geeze, Amharic, Tigrigna. They share the same "Geeze" alphabets and numericals. All of them are found in ETHIOPIA.
K, Norway (Ethiopian)

It's a completely unworkable idea. Africa, like Europe (we all know about Esperanto...), is too diverse for this to work. Say French was chosen, that would mean that the entire of Southern Africa would need to learn French. That clearly won't happen with African education as it is. Or even Arabic - even more ridiculous.
English is the obvious, but flawed answer. This still means that vast tracts of the continent will have to learn a language that has nothing to do with them or their country. Why bother? The cost of a translator is a drop in the ocean compared to trying to educate people in yet another foreign language in countries that can ill-afford it.
Alex Parker, UK

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