Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What does "bilingualism" mean in multilingual Africa?

A couple of questions seen in a recent tweet raise a number of issues about perceptions of languages, bilingualism, and multilingualism in Africa:
The answer to the last question would seem straightforward wouldn't it? Bilingual of course! Yet it does seem that the description of "bilingual" in Africa is often applied to the ability to speak two "Europhone" languages without consideration of African languages, despite the fact that there are many of the latter, spoken by many polyglot people in the many multilingual societies of the continent.

There is no shortage of examples, but one that comes to mind is a statement in 2003 by then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade during a state visit to the Nigerian capital Abuja. Speaking of regional cooperation, he chose to broach the issue of language, remarking that it is too bad the peoples of their two countries are not bilingual* (the implied languages being English and French). Although I do not have a complete reference at hand, it is mentioned in a later discussion of  remarks by a Ghanaian scholar on the occasion of release of a book on the history of the Ewe people of Togo and Benin,** to the effect that more bilingual education was needed - again in terms of English and French. There was specific reference in this case to linking "Ewe-speaking" scholars who work academically in English or French, but with no mention of the language that this group has in common across all borders.

"Official" bilingualism?

Part of the issue certainly is focus on the official languages, which for so many African countries are only those languages inherited from the colonial period and put to use since independence for administration, education, and wider communication. This appears to be the case for example in a Q&A between a reporter from the Senegalese daily Le Soleil and the French ambassador in Dakar in 2012. The question had to do with the "temptation" of some Francophone states in Africa to "bilingualism,"*** again bypassing the multilingual context of Africa and attending to official languages and language policies. This particular question was likely a reference to Rwanda's addition of English as an official language, and Burundi and Gabon considering similar moves (although Rwanda's move made it officially trilingual as Kinyarwanda, the first language of the population, and French, inherited from the colonial period, were retained as official languages).

In any event, the French ambassador's response reframed the question slightly to distinguish between the policies of countries and the decisions of individuals, including reference to maternal languages under the latter. I won't venture any interpretations other than to speculate that in some cases, it almost seems that "bilingual" is used as a code word for "adding English at the same official level as French" (I hope in the future to treat the area of policies of donor nations - former colonial powers among them - with regard to language and languages in Africa).

Bilingual and multilingual education

The term "bilingual" is also used in the context of so-called mother tongue/bilingual education, which typically involves an African language and a Europhone official language. This is a topic that has received significant attention from organizations and scholars involved in aid to and study of education in Africa (including Maurice Tadadjeu of Cameroon and Neville Alexander of South Africa, whose work has been mentioned previously on this blog). And it is a major focus in other world regions as well (a major Asian conference on mother tongue based/multilingual education - MTB/MLE - was just held in Bangkok earlier this month).

However, one notes that in some contexts references to bilingual education in Africa actually mean instruction/learning only in Europhone languages.

African multilingualism has been implicitly or explicitly recognized in various policy and applied contexts including a number of expert or ministerial-level conferences. In recent years, the African Academy of Languages, which functions under the auspices of the African Union, has sponsored a number of activities including the Bamako International Forum on Multilingualism (19-21 January 2009) whose recommendations included adoption of MTB/MLE. .

The case of Cameroon

The country of Cameroon is an interesting case to consider here, as it has two Europhone official languages - English and French - while also having some of the greatest linguistic diversity on the continent. It is common to hear the country described as bilingual, when in fact it is multilingual, with 280 living languages (by Ethnologue's count) . It is this juxtaposition that Prince Kum'a Ndumbe III was addressing when, on the occasion of a book fair his organization AfricAvenir sponsored in 2007, he stated: "The Cameroonian is not bilingual, he is multilingual."

Some of the complexities of the situation in Cameroon are explored in a short paper entitled "Bilingualism" by Usmang Salle Leinyui, which includes a discussion of different kinds of bilingualism in the country, and in an overview entitled "Multilingual Cameroon: Policy, Practice, Problems and Solutions" by Tove Rosendal (2008; University of Gothenberg Africana Informal Series, No. 7).

Cameroon has had an interesting history of efforts to promote literacy in its national languages (that term in much of Africa used for African first languages, and is a usage I would like to return to later). Much of Tadadjeu's work related to that, as did the AfricAvenir event mentioned above. However, "bilingual education" officially involves only English and French, as do various references to "bilingualism" in official documents (see Jacques Leclerc's L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde for more on this and related language policy issues). And although there have been efforts to promote use of and literacy in Cameroon's national languages (including proposal of a trilingual education model), and the constitution and high level documents mention them, Leclerc describes official "indifference" towards national languages, and Rosendal notes lack of implementation of policies to favor them.

Summary and closing question

So part of the issue of "bilingualism" in multilingual Africa often referring to Europhone languages and not African languages has to do with what have been designated "official languages." Another part may have to do with the status of languages - with it often seeming the case that knowledge of European languages is accorded more prestige than knowledge of African languages. Those two parts are certainly interrelated.

How then would a person be called who speaks one African language, one Europhone language, and, say, one Asian language?

* "Helas! nos peuples ne sont pas bilingues."
** Lawrance, Benjamin N., ed. 2005. The Ewe of Togo and Benin. Woeli Publishing Services (Ghana).
*** "Des pays africains francophones sont de plus en plus tentés par le bilinguisme. Que pensez-vous de cette évolution ?"

1 comment:

Don said...

Another example is former Ghanaian president John Kufor in 2007 vowing "commitment to bilingualism in Ghana" - meaning English and French, with no reference to African languages or multilingualism.