Unhiding African Languages : Redressing the bias

Kigali Conference Centre. Image by By Raddison - https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-kigali, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74779948

It is fairly uncontroversial to state that we live in troubled times right now. Try as many of us might to separate languages and politics, it is impossible to keep our neat, studious worlds sealed from the social shifts taking place.

Current discourse around racism in particular encourages us all to interrogate our own philosophies and world views. As open-minded, curious language learners, we might naively assume we are more immune to cultural bias than most. We point to the fact that we explore, consume, and learn about other cultures to become something more worldly and understanding.

It is true that language is a periscope to peer over the wall and see lives lived differently. But we fall foul of one big, structural fault:

An entire continent is hidden from our view.

The near absence of African languages from the online community is a serious blindspot for all of us. For example, take the Niger-Congo languages. Just short of a billion people speak them. They represent the third largest language family in the world. But they are practically invisible in those social media circles that celebrate language learning.

African languages and Western bias

We might try to defend this in several ways. Chiefly, there is “I simply have no interest in them“. That view, however, is difficult to separate from a position of power in a colonial backstory that devalued African languages from the outset. As universities opened in Sub-Sarahan Africa, they were in the Western mould. Teaching and research was – and continues to be, despite activism – overwhelmingly anglophone or francophone. The resulting lack of academic activity around indigenous languages means that African languages are simply not represented within Western education systems to the extent that other foreign languages are. Students – and adult learners – lack the exposure to them needed to spark any initial interest.

The knock-on effect is a lack of accessible learning resources for African languages. Check any bookshop – aside from the odd text like Colloquial Swahili, where would you start if you wanted to learn, say, Luganda or Kinyarwanda?

And this lack of mainstream text books is more than simply an inconvenience. How many of us, for instance, have spotted a potential new language project after chancing upon it during a bookshop browse? Estonian, spoken by just over a million people, might catch your eye as you peruse the shelves in Waterstones. But Igbo, with around 18 million speakers, is most likely out of the race before the start whistle sounds.

We might also try to counter the argument by pointing to the visibility of other, non-Indo-European groups in language study. Japanese, Korean or Chinese, perhaps. But then, these are large, prosperous societies with considerably more prestige capital and global clout than African nations. They do not struggle for global visibility.

So if the issue is structural, it is wrong to talk of any individual fault. It is the system we are embedded in. But we can do something to push back against it.

Bursting the bubble

If institutionalised content is not available, turn to the people. Many African content creators have used YouTube as a means to open up their languages to the world. From the brilliant Made In Igbo channel, to the personal projects of others in Kinyarwanda and Luganda, great, free content is just asking to be liked and shared.

And of course, it is not just about the words. Through exploring and interacting with online content, you catch glimpses of a whole other world. Music, film, fashion – all otherwise absent from our mainstream media. I came across this great Rwandan pop song via a short tutorial video on the channel theoisback:

Just compare the invisibility of this media with the cultural exports from richer, more powerful regions, which find their way into every nook of our lives. It is not a question of quality, but of the power to be seen.

You can break through the book barrier, too. If you prefer to explore more traditional course materials rather than online resources, then the Live Lingua project is an eye-opener. As a collection of materials from decades of language teaching for the US Peace Corps, it offers courses on languages you never see on the High Street. Just like YouTube videos, they also include cultural insights that begin to fill in the gaps of our bubble world view.

What difference will it make?

As single actors in a colossal, ingrained system, we may well wonder what difference we can possibly make. What good will it do to undo the institutional invisibility of African languages in our individual lives?

But our greatest tool is our community – our networks to discuss, share, inspire. Dabblers, try some Swahili (Duolingo has a good basic introduction) and let others know about it. Find authentic content you enjoy and share it on social media. Together, let us raise the visibility profile – and prestige – of African languages as much as possible.

When we do journey outside our bubble, it enriches us. We realise that there are a million and one ways to ‘do’ language, and we barely even scratch the surface with the narrow selection on our path. But, ultimately, we learn the lesson of co-humanity. We produce language using the same linguistic building blocks, the same brains, the same bodies. As human beings, there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Certainly, Africa is not the only hidden, underrepresented part of the linguistic globe. We could have the very same argument about South American indigenous languages, aboriginal Australian languages and so on. But at this juncture in history, redressing this particular imbalance seems critical, pertinent, urgent.

In the face of our current societal challenges, it might seem such a tiny thing to do. But it is something.

Richard West-Soley

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