Tuesday, August 20, 2019

African languages as indigenous languages: Examples

In the previous post, "African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions," I looked at ways the term/concept "indigenous language" is defined and used (officially), and how those might apply in Africa.

This post will look at how "indigenous language," in one form or another, is used in various contexts relating to Africa. Also, since the context for this discussion is the ongoing International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), and the recent African Regional Meeting, I'll begin with discussions of African languages and IYIL2019.

African languages and indigenous languages in IYIL2019

At the beginning of the year, the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) conceived of IYIL2019 in this way:
"The IYIL2019 forms the perfect platform for SADiLaR to venture forward with awareness campaigns dedicated to the official languages of South Africa and their development."
— "2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages: Celebration of South African languages," SADiLaR (website; accessed 31 Jan. 2019)

Curiously, the way the above is phrased, it seems to leave out less-widely spoken languages of South Africa that are not among the 11 official languages.

An article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting on IYIL2019 includes numerous mentions of "indigenous languages," as one would expect. (None of the mentions seem to give an indication of what actually is included under this term.)
"Africa gathering celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019)," UNESCO, 5 Aug. 2019

An earlier article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting also has several uses of this term, of which the following seems particularly interesting:
"However, she [African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, H.E. Amira Elfadil] noted that in the context of Africa, the term 'Indigenous Languages' need to be replaced by 'African Languages' as the former 'has a colonial connotation.'"
— "Promoting Indigenous Languages - African Regional Meeting on the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages," UNESCO Liaison Office in Addis Ababa 31 July 2019 (posted 3 Aug.2019)

Aside from equating African languages with indigenous languages in Africa (regarding which, see also H.E. Elfadil's tweet below), this quote brings up a point I did not touch on in my previous post: the term "indigenous" itself is sometimes problematic in African contexts. That is particularly the case with the cognate in French, for historical reasons, such that IYIL2019 in that language is l'Année Internationale des Langues Autochtones. Nevertheless, as items cited in the two sections below appear to indicate, "indigenous language" is actively used in and with reference to Africa.

References to "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a number of quotes in which "indigenous language" is used in relation to Africa. This is a sampling mostly from web searches, for illustrative purposes. It was compiled using no particular methodology. (Emphasis added.)

"How many indigenous languages are spoken in Africa? 3000"
Languages in Africa (flashcards), Quizlet (acessed 22 July 2019)

"Africa is incredibly rich in language—over 3,000 indigenous languages by some counts, and many creoles, pidgins, and lingua francas."
Edmund L. Epstein and Robert Kole, eds. (1998). The Language of African Literature. Africa World Press. p. ix

"This chapter highlights the difficulties inherent in defining heritage languages for immigrant Africans in the various African diasporas and provides key arguments in favor of coalescing efforts for immigrant heritage language development in the diaspora around a few African national languages, rather than the many indigenous African languages."
Abstract for: J. Kigamwa (2018) "So Many Languages to Choose from: Heritage Languages and the African Diaspora.: In: P. Trifonas P. and T. Aravossitas (eds) Handbook of Research and Practice in Heritage Language Education. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer, Cham

"A greater task also lies in the homes where some parents adamantly refuse to speak their indigenous languages to their children."
Socrates Mbamalu, "The Fading Use of Indigenous Languages in African Households," This is Africa, 17 May 2018

"Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, especially among middle to upper-class African millennials and Generation Z."
Kwabena Taiwo, "Indigenous African Languages are Dying Out and it’s a Good Thing," International Policy Digest, 6 Jun 2018

"International Journalist's Network, working with the University of Lagos, has invited African media academics and publishers to submit research papers on the past experiences, current status, and future potential of the continent's indigenous-language media."
— "Study to Promote Indigenous Language Media in Africa," Cultural Survival, 2013?

"Cultural projects discussed included prioritizing publishing in indigenous languages in order to increase literacy, promoting free speech, and decolonizing existing institutions, such as textbook publishers and libraries—all of which are in various states of development by local African publishers and institutions, now with the additional support of the IPA [International Publishers Association]."
Ed Nawotka, "The Fight to Improve Publishing in Africa," Publishers Weekly, 21 Jun 2019

"Meanwhile, in Kenya two weeks ago, a new television station was launched to serve the Rift Valley region, home to the Maasai, Samburu, Pokot and several other indigenous groups. It will air primarily Christian programs, and will broadcast to local communities in 10 indigenous languages, including Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Gusii, Pokot, and Saboat/Marakwet."
— "Diverse Efforts Made to Promote and Preserve Indigenous African Languages," Cultural Survival (accessed 14 Aug. 2019)

I'll slip in a tweet here by UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, which has "indigenous languages" in a hashtag, and mentions "ancestral languages" and Hausa in the text:

Publication titles including "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a few book and article titles incorporating "indigenous language" in one or another form. (Emphasis added.)

O. Okombo (1999) "Towards a strategy of changing attitudes to indigenous African languages," In L. Limage (ed.), Comparative perspectives on language and literacy: Selected papers from the work of the language and literacy commission of the 10th world congress of comparative education societies. Cape Town, 1998 (pp. 591–596). Dakar: UNESCO

Abiodun Salawu, ed. (2006) Indigenous Language Media in Africa, Lagos; Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC)

N.O. Ongechi (2009) "The role of foreign and indigenous languages in primary schools: The case of Kenya. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 39, 143–158

Abiodun Salawu and Monica B. Chibita, eds. (2016) Indigenous Language Media, Language Politics and Democracy in Africa, Palgrave Macmillan

To this list I might add my own African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing (HSRC Press / IDRC, 2010).


The sense that I, as a non-African, get from the above examples of how "indigenous language" is understood in Africa, is that to the extent the term is used, the broader sense is operant. That said, the colonial links to the word "indigenous" mean that for some number of people, the term is not ideal. (And in all of this, of course, we're referring to discourse in English.)

Should this mean that IYIL2019 should have wider activities in Africa? Perhaps with flexibility as to the terms used? Given the large number of languages in Africa that can be, and for some number apparently are, considered "indigenous languages," would a more active African involvement in IYIL2019 divert attention from the less widely spoken, often endangered indigenous languages around the world? Or add energy to it?

Africa's linguistic situation is in some ways unique: it has many actively used indigenous languages (broader sense), from some widely used to many less widely spoken, to some that are associated with smaller groups that fit IPACC's criteria for "indigenous" (narrower sense) and/or are endangered. Africa's colonial legacy, and the post-independence economic and political environment have disadvantaged all of those languages to varying degrees. How should these realities register in global discussions of indigenous languages?

A separate question, noting particular meanings given in Africa to terms like "national language" and "community language," is whether Africa's linguistic realities would also mean that "indigenous language" would naturally have a contextualized meaning there as well.

Such questions are important to ask, as there is an active proposal to expand the Year into a Decade of Indigenous Languages.

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