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Sociolingüística internacional
Summer 2001

Overview of the Sociolinguistic Situation in Africa, by Marcel Diki-Kidiri

Multilingualism is the most widespread situation in Africa, with around 1800 African languages to which are added the inherited languages of Africa’s colonization, namely: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Afrikaans (African language of Dutch origin). We will present an overview of the different situations before showing how the linguistic distribution of Africa came about and how it could be structured.



1. The European languages of Africa
2. African language policies
3. The situation of African languages today
4. The linguistic pyramid
5. Modernization of African languages
6. The use of African languages in modern sectors.
7. Bibliography

1. The European languages of Africa

They are essentially the languages that are a result of the colonization of Africa from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century, namely: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Afrikaans. In the wake of independence, the majority of the African countries had confirmed the situation that was prevailing before independence in adopting the language of the colonial power as their official language.

Thus, English accounts for 16 countries: Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Sierra-Leone, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

French accounts for 17 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Chad, and Togo.

Portuguese accounts for 5 countries: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe. Spanish accounts for: Equatorial Guinea.

The other hypothetical cases are characterized as follows:

a) Countries that, since gaining independence, have taken on a language other than the colonial language as their official language:

Algeria, who obtained independence with the use of arms, immediately proclaimed Arabic as its official language, while French continues to be widely used by its population. Tanzania proclaimed Kiswahili as its official language without having prohibited the use of English. So, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic recognizes Arabic as its official language, in spite of its disputed existence.

b) Countries that, since gaining independence, have recognized other national and official languages in conjunction with the colonial language:

French and Arabic are joint official languages of Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania. Egypt, which was never truly an English colony, has always preserved Arabic as its official language. Sudan gained its independence and made Arabic and English its official languages. Somalia, that is largely Muslim and was colonized by England and Italy alternately, officially recognizes three languages: Arabic, Italian, and English. Later on, this country would proactively take on a linguistic distribution in favour of Somalian.

Cameroon who, shortly after gaining independence reunified its territory of which one part had been placed quite a while back under British authority, declared French and English its official languages after its reunification. Guinea, who under a tense climate, gained its independence from France and raised eight languages of the country to national language status without neglecting French. The homogenous linguistic situation of Burundi and Rwanda lead both countries to adopt Kirundi and Kinyarwanda respectively as official languages alongside French. Thus, Seychelles gained its independence by declaring English, French, and Creole as its official languages!

From 1965 on, Chad declared Arabic and French as official languages while Senegal gave "national language" status to six of its African languages just as Guinea did. In 1970, following a political and cultural revolution, Madagascar declared Malagasy as its only official language. Despite a come-back of French in 1990, this legal provision would not be modified. During this same period, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly called the "Republic of Congo") re-established four of the main common languages of the country, namely: Lingala, Kiswahili, Ciluba, and Kikongo. Thus, in 1991, the Central African Republic declared Sangho as the official language in conjunction with French.

2. African language policies

2.1. The diversity of the language policies

In the light of the above, one can easily see that Africa has not had a single type of language policy. The individual histories of each country and their sociolinguistic conditions have often times influenced decisions or the lack of decision regarding language policy.

Likewise, when Ben Bella’s Algeria declared Arabic as the official language, it was not simply for cultural and demographic reasons, but primarily in order to break with the official position of French, reaffirming its independence that was gained at such a high price. In Sekou Toure’s Guinea, the recognition of eight Guinean languages as "national languages" and their systematic promotion falls in line with the same logic of breaking off from France because of the immediate independence demanded and obtained by Sekou Toure which, in doing so, opposed Charles de Gaulle’s plan.

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