Multilingualism and language choice in Sub-Saharan Africa

After a long period of economic stagnation, Africa is blooming in the new millennium. It is blooming not just in economic terms, but also culturally. Whether it’s South Africa having been declared the new center of the house music world; the annual Lagos Fashion and Design Week; or Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Mangrove Banquet featuring ingredients from the Niger Delta and celebrating the lives of its inhabitants, Africa is rising. Large multinational companies have taken notice and, not wanting to let China take the spoils, are exploring investment opportunities on the continent.

Understanding behaviors, attitudes and influences is essential to successfully tap into Africa’s diverse set of consumers; this includes the attitudes that Africans have toward language. With Africa being home to at least 1,200 and possibly as many as 2,000 languages, a key question for any company that is looking to do business on the continent is what idiom to use for connecting with consumers in the region. Is a product and a marketing strategy that relies on the international languages of wider communication (Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish) the right approach, or should the indigenous African languages be used for this purpose?

Sub-Saharan Africa presents a complex linguistic landscape. Small, indigenous languages with thousands of speakers exist side by side with regional and national lingua francas (or trade languages). In everyday life, speakers come into frequent contact with one another and learn other languages easily, allocating different functions to languages spoken in the home, in the marketplace or during a court hearing. Multilingualism, the ability to communicate in more than one language, either actively through speaking, writing or signing, or passively through listening, reading or perceiving, is the norm in Africa. And multilingualism is increasing. Owing to the ease of access to information available on the internet, an increase in mobility and improved educational opportunities, individuals are increasingly exposed to and learn multiple languages. The use of regional and national lingua francas as second or third languages in Africa is hence steadily rising. Increased mobility brings ever more speakers of more languages into contact, changing and reshaping these languages, often before standards have been developed and can be propagated.

Choosing an official language

Several sociolinguistic and historical factors contribute to the complexity of language use in Sub-Saharan Africa. At independence, the majority of African states decided to use the language of the former colonial power as the official language of the country. An official language is a language that has special legal status in a particular country, state or other jurisdiction and typically refers to the language used within government. By contrast, UNESCO defines a national language as a “language spoken by a large part of the population of a country, which may or may not be designated an official language.” Several factors played a role in this linguistic decision-making. First, following a global trend that has often seen multilingualism as a threat to the cohesion and economic development of nation states, the new governments decided in favor of monolingualism by declaring only one language as the official language. Historically, this attitude goes back to the European concept of nation building as “one country, one culture, one language.” The multilingual and multicultural nature of the newly independent countries was streamlined toward one language. Secondly, with the sole exception of Tanganyika (which joined with Zanzibar to become the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964), decisions were made in favor of using a colonial language instead of a local idiom as the official language of the country. By using a colonial language, it was argued that ethnic favoritism could be avoided; elevating one particular tribe by designating its language as official would have led to the suspicion by other tribes and been detrimental to the formation of the state.

Several other factors played a role in these decisions as well, however. By choosing the colonial language as the official language, the former colonial powers were able to continue to exert economic as well as intellectual power over their former colonies. In addition, indigenous African languages were often not considered developed enough to serve the purpose of governing; they lacked in harmonization across dialects, standardization of orthography and terminology, and language teaching materials. This negative view of African languages has not only served to diminish their role in the process of steering the new countries, it has also resulted in a devaluation of the speakers whose cultures were expressed in and by those languages.

The result of these language policies was a deep class division in many African countries, which afforded those with competence in the official languages access to education and resources while excluding those without that knowledge from sharing in those opportunities.

 To this day, the language of power and prestige in many African states remains linked to the language of the colonial powers, and hence enjoys high status and more functional privileges in most public domains. This language is in most cases the official language and/or language of instruction, which often overshadows the indigenous languages. However, a large number of people on the continent either do not speak the colonial languages at all or they do not speak them well. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning notes that even though “most African education systems focus on the use of the international languages, only between ten and 15 percent of the population in most African countries are estimated to be fluent in these languages.”

Africa continues to have the lowest enrollment rate in primary and secondary schools; the average African adult has fewer than three years of schooling and there are increasing inequalities within Africa between urban and rural populations. In its 1997 “Cultural Policy Statement” (Sera ya Utamaduni) the Ministry of Education and Culture of Tanzania advocated for the Swahilization of the entire state education system, arguing that the continued reliance on English would increase poverty because of the incompetence of a majority of its citizens in that medium. The international languages of wider communication often are barriers when it comes to education and communication in Africa; their use thus reinforces existing socioeconomic disparities.

This disparity is not only relevant when it comes to the distribution of development aid, which often fails to be effective due to lack of understanding of those on the receiving end, but it is also directly relevant in formulating marketing strategies for the different countries. African economies are characterized by a small formal sector and a large informal sector. According to Richard Walther in “La formation professionnelle en secteur informel ou comment dynamiser l’économie des pays en développement,” the informal sector “accounts for 75% of existing jobs, 80% of new jobs and approximately 50% of national wealth.” It is this sector of the economy where most innovation takes place and most of the least educated are employed. What is important to understand is that business in this sector is exclusively conducted in indigenous African languages. While the formal sector can hence easily be served using an international language of wider communication, it is the informal sector that provides the greater opportunities for economic growth. This sector, however, requires the use of local languages for successful communication with consumers. Given the increasing spread of regional and national lingua francas, tapping into this sector does not require localization into some 2,000 languages, however. Instead, an incremental localization model that starts with the majority languages and grows to include the national and regional lingua francas would provide good coverage at a sustainable pace.

There are 54 sovereign states and ten nonsovereign territories in Africa. Of the 54 states, 47 are typically considered part of the Sub-Saharan region; countries of the Maghreb, meaning Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania and the Sudan as well as the territory of Western Sahara are excluded. Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have a single majority language if majority language is defined as a first language that is spoken by 50% of the population. However, if majority language is defined as a language spoken as a first or second language by 50% of the population, then 31 of the 47 Sub-Saharan countries have a majority language, listed in Table 1. No Sub-Saharan country has a majority Indo-European language.

Current situations

With the end of the cold war, a new political era began for Sub-Saharan Africa that afforded many African countries new freedom in charting their own courses. Since then, a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa decided to use local African idioms as official languages. Leaving aside the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, which retained its sovereignty during colonial times, and Tanzania, which declared Swahili an official language upon independence, several countries now use an indigenous language as the official language. First among those is the Republic of South Africa, which has 11 official languages. In addition to Afrikaans and English, the local languages Ndebele, Northern Sotho (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa or Sepedi), Sotho (also known as Southern Sotho), Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu became official in 1996. Table 2 lists the remaining countries that are using indigenous languages as official languages.

Given the colonial and post-colonial history, negative attitudes toward African languages are widespread not only among Westerners, but also Africans. African languages are often perceived as being of low status and prestige, especially among those parts of the population who believe that upward mobility and financial success are tied to fluency in one of the international languages of wider communication. This contrasts with a positive attitude toward African languages by many Africans who believe that their languages should play a greater role in education, the media and government affairs. Proponents of African languages see linguistic and cultural diversity neither as a threat nor as a burden keeping the continent isolated, either from knowledge or from participating in the kinds of knowledge-based economies that are emerging. Instead they perceive multilingualism as an asset that affords rich and vibrant communication among speakers, and provides them with a sense of identity and pride.

Given the cultural diversity of Sub-Saharan Africa, this dichotomy plays out differently in each country. Yet there are signs that the attitude of Africans toward their languages is changing, and that a new sense of pride in the African culture and heritage is emerging. There is an increased use of African languages in online social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook. And there is the unmistakable sense of pride about the development of Sheng, a Swahili-based jargon that originates among the urban underclass of Nairobi, Kenya. While primarily a language of urban youths, Sheng has spread across social classes and geographically to neighboring Tanzania and Uganda. Even middle class speakers seem fascinated by the novelty and creativity embodied in Sheng and seem to identify with it to varying degrees.

This is a positive development that many companies, especially in the IT sector, have taken note of, offering versions of their software and content in some local African languages. Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft all provide local versions of their user interfaces and content offerings in some of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Amharic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Wolof as well as the three most important languages of Nigeria, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are available through all companies. In addition, the official South African languages Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu are provided. Much remains to be understood about the language preferences of African users and the limits of navigating a complex user interface in a language that users may speak fluently, but may not be fully confident reading. Yet the opportunity of using technology in local African languages now exists and with it the acknowledgment that the diverse cultures of Africa matter.