Friday, May 01, 2015

Second most spoken languages in Africa

A news feature on the Olivet Nazarene University site presents a map showing "The Second Most Spoken Languages Around the World." This is an interesting effort to get below surface descriptions of language use. As a Washington Post feature last year on languages in the U.S. put it, "Top-line statistics often reveal little. But peel back the first set of layers, and you reveal a lot of diversity - and history."

Second most spoken languages in Africa. Source
However, when dealing with the complex linguistic landscape of Africa, this effort runs into problems. The first issue is assuming that "The most spoken language in any country is often obvious; usually, it’s the official language of the country." In Africa this often is not the case, if by "most spoken" one counts number of speakers. An example is Mali, whose linguistic profile was explored on this blog in discussing the long-tail of languages - Bambara is certainly more used than the official French.

Official language is a category that doesn't lend itself to ranking use of languages in Africa, beyond the (admittedly important) context of official use and its spillover to popular use. In the case of two countries at least, this runs into additional problems:
  • South Africa has 11 official languages (the Olivet site incorrectly lists only one of them - Zulu - as official). So one of the official languages will be second most spoken. Perhaps that is Xhosa as indicated, but the model focusing on official languages hasn't worked here.
  • Rwanda has three official languages (Kinyarwanda, French, and English), and Central African Republic two (Sango and French). Since the site doesn't consider these official languages in discussing second most widely spoken, it is reduced to stating that Swahili is "second" most used in Rwanda, and that indigenous languages are used in CAR - which doesn't tell us much.
  • Ethiopia has Oromo listed as the second most spoken language, but the detailed info notes that it is actually the first most spoken, with the official Amharic being second. So shouldn't Amharic be listed on this map instead of Oromo?
The type of situation in Ethiopia and Mali is probably the rule in African countries where one or two indigenous languages dominate (even when a Europhone language is official and therefore assumed to be the key linguistic descriptor for the countries).

A second issue is that in reading the individual country descriptions, it seems there may be a confusion between second most spoken language and most spoken second language (L2). This is a key distinction between numbers of L1+L2 speakers for the former (which will be predominately L1 for many languages), and just L2 speakers for the latter. When discussing English in many countries - one focus of the Olivet effort - almost all speakers will be L2, but that would be a special case within consideration of what language is second most used (per the title of the page). In the case of Liberia, however, where English is official, reference is then to local languages as "most common second language."

A minor issue is reference to "tribal languages" - not used in academic literature, and has negative messages in other contexts.

Another one is the coding used for languages - many of the two-letter abbreviations coincide with the standard two-letter ISO 639-1 codes, but others do not (Bambara would be "bm," not "ba"; Chichewa would be "ny" like Nyanja [same language]; "As" for Asante in Ghana would more appropriately be "Ak" for Akan. Where there is no ISO 639-1 code, then either an invented 2-letter code or better yet, a three-letter ISO 630-3 code could be used.

Despite issues mentioned above, this is an worthwhile effort that could potentially have use in education - of language learners, development practitioners, and policy makers. Some suggestions:
  1. Be clear that it is "second most spoken language" throughout and consistently
  2. Do not count official as the most spoken, especially in Africa - official may be most important on some levels, but not necessarily understood by most people. The story gets more interesting when one looks at most spoken languages (L1+L2 numbers) per country
  3. Do not refer to "tribal" languages - indigenous, local, or whatever, there are more or less better terms
  4. Use ISO 639-1 (and if necessary -3) codes
  5. Name the indigenous languages - Ethnologue of course is a prime reference for names and numbers
  6. Consider tracking third most spoken languages. Much of the work towards this will have been done anyway, in sorting through numbers to determine what is second most spoken.
  7. An additional resource to consult is Jacques Leclerc's L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde
  8. Keep in mind cross-border languages - Hausa and Swahili are well known, but Chewa and Nyanja are the same (as indicated above) and Bambara and Dioula (aka Jula) are mutually intelligible - could further development of this project include ranking regional (crossborder) languages?
See also the follow up more detailed analysis in Part 2.


Hywel Coleman, Jakarta said...

Thank you for drawing our attention to this.

Unfortunately the country information for Indonesia is wide of the mark.The map states 'The most common second languages are English and Dutch, which act as common languages in an island nation of more than 700 native languages.'

But (1) nobody under the age of about 65 speaks Dutch and only the most highly educated over 65 know it; (2) familiarity with English is found only in urban pockets and tourist areas such as Bali; (3) the 'common language' is Bahasa Indonesia, which is 'known' (according to the 2010 Census) by about 92 per cent of the population of 240 million but is the first language of only about 11 per cent.

In fact the most widely spoken first language is Javanese (approximately 100 million) and the second is Sundanese (about 34 million). These figures are very approximate because the 2000 and 2010 Census results for languages other than Bahasa Indonesia have not been announced.

Don said...

You're welcome, Hywel, and thanks for the comment. I hadn't looked much at data beyond Africa, but your points re Indonesia are important. I hope that the folks at ONU take these critiques as encouragement to revise the presentation. It is helpful to look at the "layers" below official and most spoken languages - and indeed to make distinctions between those categories as appropriate. I'm not aware of anyone else spotlighting this aspect of languages worldwide.