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Sociolingüística internacional

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


In Senegal, where Wolof is the main language spoken by 80% of the population, one would have expected it to become the linguistic foundations of national construction. Leopold Sedar Senghor gave six languages of the country "national language" status. The recognition of Wolof as the country’s only official language would have been taken as a tentative imposition of the language on ethnic minorities who already spoke the language out of necessity without the intervention of the State.

In Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and in many other African countries, the African languages did not benefit from any promotional policy by the political authorities of the 1960’s. There could have been a number of reasons for this: the African languages were too numerous, often they had not been transcribed. Without doubt they were considered to not have a specific thought structure, but above all they were intimidating. Promoting the African languages risked releasing passions that could lead to some identity claims linked to tribal uprisings. For European governments, always omnipresent in the political affairs of Africa, promoting African languages is considered a direct menace to the predominant position of the official European languages. And as an African Head of State, during those years, who was always seated upon an ejection seat, he thought twice before announcing a language policy in favour of the African languages.

2.2. A reality that needs to be addressed

Language policies are being adopted progressively by indirect rather than direct means.

Firstly, the high rate of illiteracy in the heart of rural populations in particular, will lead governments to draw up a literacy policy with the help of international organizations working to develop countries (United Nations Development Program, World Bank, etc.). The inevitable question of knowing which language to use for literacy programs arises, and it all comes back to the inevitable preference of the languages of the environment, that is to say, the African languages.

Secondly, the catastrophic outcome of educational failures recorded throughout Africa, whatever the reasons may be, has prompted African governments to look into the difficult problem of educational reform in the broader scope of reforming the educational system. Besides numerous international conferences involving many national and international organizations (UNESCO, ACCT, UNICEF, etc.), politicians are getting more and more used to the idea that teaching should be done in the country’s language because the children learn better that way. Yes, but which language do we choose?

Educational and linguistic distribution experts know that the problem is nothing more than a pretext to do nothing, because since we are dealing with a specific situation the problem of choosing a language isn’t even raised at all. The only matter that always remains and that is omnipresent is the political desire to reach the end. Are politicians truly ready to carry out a linguistic distribution policy in favour of the African languages that are most fit to assuring, without bringing about drastic cultural consequences, the evolution of the population and the development of their country? That is truly the question, because the success of the enterprise lies in the level of commitment that politicians are willing to undertake.

3. The situation of African languages today

The number of African languages is generally estimated at around 1800 of which only around 400 have been part of an advanced or in-depth scientific description. Dozens of these languages are on the verge of extinction while others are in a process of complete expansion. It is among these that a small number of them (less than fifty) stand out due to their particular situation and the importance that they have been given as a privileged means of communication, whether within the same country or throughout a vast region comprised of various countries.

The following typology that takes up and updates the typology suggested in 1993 to the Intergovernmental Agency of the French-speaking World (AIF) by the French-speaking countries (Renard, 2000:109) and applies to the group of African languages. This typology emphasizes:

3.1. Transnational languages

This is the term used to describe languages that are spoken in at least two countries. Some of them are largely widespread beyond their regional boundaries, these are the carrier languages, while others are limited to certain geographical regions that are occupied by their speakers, these are called vernaculars. Many of these languages are officially recognized as carriers of one or more specific formal activities in some of the countries where they are spoken. These languages are said to have a specific status. The most common specific statuses are: official language, national language, teaching language, literacy language, media language, religious language, commercial language, etc.

Carrier languages. The majority have acquired specific status in many of the countries where they are used. For example:

- Kiswahili (Tanzania, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda)
The Mandingo complex: Bambara-dioula-malinke (Mali, Burkina-Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau)
- The Kirundi-kinyarwanda complex (Burundi, Rwanda)
- Kikongo-munukutuba (DRC, Congo, Angola)
- Lingala (DRC, Congo)
- Peuhl (Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina-Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Chad)
- Wolof (Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia)
- Hawsa (Nigeria, Niger)
- Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo)
- Arabic (Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia).

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