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

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

Multilingualism in Kenya: Focus on language use and its implications

Alice Wachira (Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Germany)



One of the consequences of colonialism is the emergence of bilingual and multilingual societies - being the result of the acquisition of colonial language(s) by colonised peoples. African countries, for example, are today referred to as Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone, depending on the language acquired through colonialism. This is in addition to the native languages that existed in these countries before colonial intrusion.

In Kenya there is, in addition to the various ethnic languages, the overall use of Kiswahili, a Bantu language which also serves as the national language. The average Kenyan therefore has knowledge of at least three languages, namely English -- which is used as the official language, Kiswahili -- the national lingua-franca, and a native Kenya language -- often acquired as mother-tongue and which differ between the various ethnic groups. English is used in schools and other institutions of learning as well as in government institutions and some households. The most commonly spoken language is Kiswahili which is the language of communication almost everywhere between people from different linguistic communities - at home and in public institutions.

The various ethnic languages correspond to the geographical location of their ethnic groups. In smaller towns, the language of the particular ethnic group represented there is generally used as the main language of communication. Since major towns are convergence spots for people from different ethnic groups, one easily finds a mixed use of all these languages resulting in language-mixing. Language choice in such a multilingual context is determined by purpose of usage.

This paper focuses on the influence of speakers’ multilingual statuses on language use in the society and seeks to show its socio-cultural implications, its effect on mastery of language and on the linguistic cognitive aspect of the individual. As demonstrated by several researchers, even in monolingual societies there exist varieties of the language that are tied to various social factors. Hence one can distinguish, for example, between the kind of language used in formal and informal situations, between strangers on the one hand and close friends on the other, as well as language used to attain certain goals. In multilingual societies, these facts become more evident since code-switching occurs across several languages - some of which are oral. Code-switching is sometimes compelled by the level of mastery of the languages in question. This touches on the competence in the languages, and in the case where the mastery of these languages is very good, there are also certain cognitive implications - some of which will be considered in greater detail in this paper.

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

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-06