Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

Arguments for Multilingual Policies in African Public Domains

Eyamba G. Bokamba (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)



Except for a handful of African nations (including Algeria, Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa, and Tanzania), the remaining 47 have invested very little effort and funds to address seriously the issue of the place and role of African languages in the socio-economic development of these nations and the continent in general. Repeated attempts at the national and continental levels in the past forty-five years have been either tepid, or thwarted by more pressing political (e.g., civil wars, political oppression, state failure) and economic crises (failure of infrastructure, marginalization of principal commodities). While a large body of research literature on language planning in Africa since the heydays of political emancipation (1959-60) has addressed the nature of language planning and policy in the continent and their raisons d’être (cf. Bamgbose 1991, 2000, Bokamba 1976, 1984, 1991, 1995, etc., Breton 1991, 2003, Okoth 2001), that research has largely overlooked the long term effects of globalization on the possible demise of indigenous African languages and the benefits that can be accrued from them in a range of public domains (e.g., education, judiciary, legislature, administration, health delivery system).

This paper will attempt to argue in favor of multilingual policies in Africa that advocate the rational utilization of selected European and indigenous African languages in the key domains of societal interaction, including university instruction, administration, legislature, and the judiciary. The paper maintains that African languages, just like other languages of wider communication (LWC), represent invaluable linguistic capital à la Bourdieu (1991) that must be fully invested in all key domains lest we lose them and the cultures that they encode. It argues further that to maintain the status quo on the exclusive use of the former colonial languages as official media in education and administration is a prescription for the success of European languages hegemony in the continent and for the perpetuation of its underdevelopment. To counter these destructive practices by African nations, it is proposed that they adopt language policies that will potentiate participatory democracies, foster educational and socio-economic development that is commensurate with the continent’s immense natural resources. The paper argues further and demonstrate that the maintenance, rather than a shift from, African linguae francae in public domains is both a critical linguistic capital and a cultural imperative for the survival of the African continent.


1. Bamgbose, Ayo (1991). Language and the Nation: The Language Question in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

2. ____ (2000). Language and Exclusion: The Consequences of Language Policies in Africa. Hamburg: Lit Verlag Mûnster.

3. Bokamba, Eyamba G. (1976). Authenticity and the choice of national language; the case of Zaire. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences: Papers on African Linguistics 6, 2: 23-64. Reprinted in Présence Africaine (1976), Nos. 99/100: 104-43.

4. ____ (1984b). French colonial language policy and its legacies. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 14, 2: 1-36. A revised edition published in David F. Marshall, ed. (1991), Language Planning: Focusschrift in Honor of Joshua A. Fishman on the Occasion of his 65 th Birthday, pp. 175-213. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

5. ____ (1995). The politics of language planning in Africa: Critical choices for the 21 st century. In Martin Pûtz, ed., Discrimination Through Language in Africa? Perspectives on the Namibian Experience , pp. 11-28. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

6. Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language & Symbolic Power. Edited and introduced by John B. Thompson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

7. Breton, Roland J.-L. (1991). The handicaps of language planning in Africa. In David F. Marshall, ed., pp. 153-74.

8. ____ (2003). Sub-Saharan Africa. In Jacques Maurais and Michaeel A. Morris, eds., Languages in a Globalising World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

9. Okoth, Okombo (2001). Language Policy: The Forgotten Parameter in African Development and Governance Strategies. Inaugural lecture delivered to the University of Nairobi and the Kenyan public. Nairobi, Kenya

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-09-05