In a continent of 55 countries and over 2,000 languages, it is shocking that the official languages predominantly used are foreign languages. It is even worse that the medium of instruction in learning institutions are foreign languages. The marginalization of indigenous languages leaves many of the African languages without a role to play.

For a language to survive, it must have a defined and clear role that it plays in the society. It could be used as the language of the immediate community to communicate, which could as well be the mother tongue. It could be used as the language of wider communication, (a language used by people as a medium of communication across language or cultural barriers), which is the case for example with lingua franca. It could be used as the language of religion, for example Arabic in the Koran.

With the lack of a clearly defined role, a language tends to get less used. When a language has fewer speakers, the language eventually dies (language death). Due to language shift, when speakers shift from using one language to another, either due to economic gains or other reasons, the language becomes endangered, and if not protected, it will eventually die.

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The role a language is assigned is dictated by a language policy. In South Africa where there are 11 official languages, the languages play a major role. When a language is consistently used, there is constant improvement of the language. More lexicon is added to the language and words that did not exist in the language are created,  and adopted. The language grows and evolves to accommodate new terminologies, experiences, and concepts.

Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Africa’s foremost champions of indigenous languages. Photo: University of California, Irvine

In a country such as Nigeria that has over 600 languages, only three languages are considered major. Nigeria doesn’t have a national language policy but the National Policy on Education identifies language as an important issue, which needs to be addressed. The policy states that the mother tongue should be used as the language of elementary level; this includes pre-primary and primary levels of education.

The major languages, Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba are considered as the languages of national culture and integration. English and French are considered the official languages of Nigeria. This policy has not been implemented. The slow implementation of the policy has an adverse effect on the state of indigenous languages in Nigeria.

In most East African countries Kiswahili has been made an official language. However, the elevation of Kiswahili leaves other indigenous languages out of the picture, which raises questions. What is the possibility of the survival of African languages surviving without language policies to support their existence? In Southern Kaduna, within eight local governments, 30 languages exist. In different parts of Nigeria there are similar examples. The government’s plan for the protection and preservation of many of the indigenous languages is not clear.

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The diversity of cultures, languages and ethnic groups has been more of a source of division than unity across the continent. In 2012 the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) predicted that the Igbo language which has a current population of 25 million speakers will be extinct by 2025,if nothing is done, by  the authorities and speakers to ensure that it is not only taught in learning institution but also used as language of official communications within government and business. Many other African languages have much lower population of speakers. Those languages will die unless something is done to save them.