The countries of Africa today were, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all under colonial rule for half a century or more, up to the middle of the twentieth century. Upon becoming independent, the countries of Africa south of the Sahara all adopted the languages of their former colonial masters as their official languages. The general effect of this latter choice of official languages has been to force the indigenous languages spoken south of the Sahara into a diglossic relationship with the languages of the former colonial masters. As a consequence of that relationship, those languages are now all endangered in varying degrees. Thus, many of their speakers now value them less, and have also started gradually shifting from them to the languages of the former colonial masters. Furthermore, governments that once seemed very committed to promoting some of these languages now either appear lukewarm or have actually taken decisions that in effect negate that earlier commitment. The root cause of the plight of the indigenous languages spoken south of the Sahara is not the mere fact that the areas where they are spoken were once colonised by foreign powers. Neither is it that each country south of the Sahara has a multiplicity of such languages and consequently has had problem deciding which of them to develop and promote to true official status. Rather it lies in the fact that such languages, like their counterparts in South America, each lack a "great tradition" in the sense of Ferguson (1959/1972) as explicated by Fasold (1990: 36). By contrast, some languages in Asia and North Africa all successfully replaced superposed colonial languages because they each had and still have that kind of tradition. The important lesson to learn from this for the future is that all concerned in Africa south of the Sahara must not only rescue and develop at least the major indigenous languages spoken there, they must also initiate and sustain a culture of reading, researching, teaching, and writing in such languages, so as to prevent them from being caught flat-footed, so to speak, if colonialism should ever come calling there again.
Selected Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Linguistic Interfaces in African Languages
edited by Ọ
la Orie and Karen W. Sanders
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