On Language and Knowledge

04 Oct

Tales by Moonlight by Wale Adeoye

Nne kedu? I enquired after the well being of the 8 year old girl with whose mother, I stood exchanging pleasantries. She smiled and looked away, while her mother proudly responded on her behalf, “she doesn’t understand Igbo; you know children of nowadays and how they are.” My heart sank; “children, or parents of nowadays” I almost blurted out, but my voice of upbringing prevailed. A week earlier, an acquaintance had called from Nigeria and in the midst of what I thought was an interesting conversation in my dialect interjected; “so after all these years of studying abroad, your Igbo is still so intact – that is so disappointing” I was shocked into silence. Perhaps, thinking my silence to be one of shame, he continued – “and you don’t even speak with an American accent, what then can you say to have achieved in your sojourn.” Like Wole Soyinka responded to the White landlady in the Telephone Conversation, I hope the response I gave to him was apt enough, and deserving of his inferiority complex ridden comment.

 All over the continent, African languages are fast assuming antiquated status. Speaking one’s language is becoming synonymous with the lower and uneducated class. As language is the major identity of a people, the implication of this denigration of indigenous languages for Africa is severe. According to literary giant Ngugi Wa Thiongo in his 2003 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, the self consciousness of any society is sited in the collective memory of a people which is situated in their language of communication. Professor Wa Thiong’o cites the example of the renaming exercise by the colonial powers, such as the great East African lake known to the Luo natives as Namlolwe, being changed to Lake Victoria, the native name Ngugi becomes James and Noliwe becomes Margaret.

Most people who grew up in sub-Saharan Africa would relate with professor Wa Thiongo’s narrative of what transpired in his days of growing up in rural Kenya. Growing up, professor Wa Thiongo spoke his mother tongue Gikuyu, at home and in the fields, but, after he went to school, his language of education ceased to be the language of his culture and thoughts. The child who was caught speaking his heart language, Gikuyu within the school premises was given corporal punishment or fined money. Those who spoke English were admired as the intelligent ones. English, according to Wa Thiong’o, ‘became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of the formal education.’ The self-loathing this act would foster in the child can only be imagined as he looses respect for himself, his parents who cannot speak English and his culture and people.

Wa Thiongo rightly posits that this colonial action was deliberately aimed at the devaluation of not just the African language, but the culture it embodies, such as ‘art, dances, religion, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language and culture of the colonized’. By so doing, European language, memory and culture were superimposed on the minds of Africans. Language is directly connected to consciousness and memory, therefore, the imposition of foreign languages and the culture it embodies, formed the fundamental aspect of European colonization. In Black Man, White Masks, Franz Fanon argues that in Africa, colonialism influenced the culture so strongly that even after the ceremonial handover of power, the culture never remained the same afterwards and continues to tilt towards dependency on Euro-centric persuasions.

Mother-tongue, indigenous or heart language is the language of spontaneity, the language of invention and creativity. Bill Gates who dropped out of school was able to build the Microsoft empire, a feat almost practically impossible in Africa, where tertiary education and the mastery of the colonial languages are synonymous with success. In China and other successful economies of East Asia, indigenous languages are promoted alongside other international languages making all members of the society to have a sense of belonging. This also preserves the local knowledge that would have been lost in attempts at translation. Africa, however, is yet to recover from the western imperial powers’ forceful subjection of the continent and the people to its (Western) memory, through imposition of the colonial language.

In Decolonizing the Mind, Wa Thiong’o notes that the erosion of cultural pride makes Africans want to identify with other people’s languages rather than their own. Eminent African intellectual professor Ali Mazrui identifies culture as the premise upon which all development efforts and societal progress or achievements are rooted and adjudged. Culture is central to a society’s progress, and if language is the major vehicle of culture, it implies that language as Wa Thiong’o argues, is important in shaping the consciousness of the individuals that make up society. Cultural imperialism is the worst form of imperialism since it effectively destroys the memory, values and unique consciousness of the colonized, and forces an alien memory over him. Interdependency is one of the fundamental laws of nature.

Biologists and environmentalists are more and more clamoring for the preservation of the species and the promotion of biodiversity. In global relations, promotion of language and cultural diversity is pertinent. Knowledge stored in one language will be entirely lost if it is not preserved intact. Increasingly, Euro-America pharmacologists and pharmaceutical companies are pitching tent with indigenous communities of Africa and the Amazon, in order to observe the curative properties of their indigenous herbal knowledge. Also, indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the Gacaca system in Rwanda or such traditional agricultural production techniques like the Zai in Niger, have both formed the basis of much study by Western researchers. Those would have been lost to the world today, had the countries not preserved the knowledge. China and most of East Asia are renowned for so many things today because they have preserved their language, culture, and indigenous knowledge.

While the diversity of Africa in terms of linguistic division cannot be overlooked, it must be looked upon as advantageous, although we have been made to believe that it is disadvantageous. A cluster of several knowledge systems in one single landmass should only translate to increased creativity and innovation, of an unprecedented proportion.  The challenge should be the development of an adequate language policy that will preserve these languages and at the same time keep our people globally competitive by not neglecting emerging realities in world affairs.

PS: An interesting article on how speaking several languages can help ward off diseases: It has also been proven that the more languages you know or learn to speak, the higher your IQ. Africans, what are we doing to ourselves?


Posted by on October 4, 2011 in Essays


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7 responses to “On Language and Knowledge

  1. Lanre

    October 6, 2011 at 2:41 am

    Chika, deep thinking. I remember roughly about 15 years ago, I spoke with a member of the Yoruba Literati. I told him then that in 50 Years ,the (Yoruba) language will be extinct. He demurred. What do I a young man know, I thought to myself. But I still wondered. What (language) do most people of my generation (40 and below) think in; communicate, transact.
    Now you are top elite if your kid starts off with mandarin or cantonese. I think our languages may end up becoming exotic speech at candle-lit dinners.

    • chikaforafrica

      October 7, 2011 at 8:27 am

      Thanks, Lanre. In comparison, I would say that Yorubas are among the few ethnic groups that are still proud of their language. Across the West, you find several Yoruba children born in the Diaspora who speak the language quite well. It is not the same with some other ethncities. Still, I agree with you, much more needs to be done by all African nationalities. South Africa has recognized eleven languages as official and tries to evenly spread fund for research and development among them. I also strongly support the recognition of pidgin and creole as indigenous langauges (it does not have to be traditional to be indigenous). I also agree with the call in certain quarters for Swahili to be recognized as “the official” African language; it is spoken by over 350 million people across Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, parts of Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and in several other countries. The reach of Swahili is wide, but most importantly, it is very easy to learn and captures the African syntax so easily.

  2. Lanre

    October 9, 2011 at 3:40 am

    Very interesting Chika. I admire your love for Africa. Some of the remarks you have made here actually provoke thoughtful challenge. I will express some of my concerns.

    1). The spread of some languages (like English) has been by imperialism, colonialism and conquest.
    2). Many of these languages acquire an importance due to technology (e.g English). The pervasive, ubiquitous nature of the PC (Windows Version, Macintosh etc) and the derivatives – iPhone, iPad, Apps etc.

    These are just two. How do we then make an African language desirable if there is no conquest or innovative technological adaptation.? Policy thrusts alone can only go so far. Thanks for sharing.

    • chikaforafrica

      October 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm

      Agreed. In this ultra-capitalist age, presenting patriotism as the sole objective for promoting indigenous languages appears almost absurd. There is need to attach commercial importance to indigenous languages in order to make them viable. Japan did this during the post-Meiji era by adopting the slogan “Western technique, Japanese spirit”. Japanese language was revolutionized by linguists, who – understanding its strong importance – did not want to dispose of the language in the country’s efforts to modernize. That sense of nationalism has built Japan to what it is today. Japanese culture has held the country together in several ways and has been exported to the rest of the world. The Japanese have their respects in the global comity of nations and are highly regarded for their unique contribution to the world.

      In terms of conquest, China is gradually conquering the world economically. Several universities are now including Mandarin as a course in the linguistic deparments. Reportedly, The official language of the United States NASA is Mandarin. Confucius Institutes are springing up in several places across Africa. If we as Africans empower ourselves economically, and promote Swahili as the African language, that would bring so much unity to the continent and respect for its people. Again this is not either/or. It is both/and. In Victorian England, the aristocrats trained their children to speak as many languages as possible; Latin, French, Greek, German etc. It made it so easy for these explorers to come to Africa and easily learn the language for exploitation of the people.

      Africans must be enlightened to speak their indgenous languages and as many other African languages as possible. And of course, as many global languages as possible. The more you speak, the more access you have to as many cultures, communities and knowledge systems as possible. Thanks for engaging.

  3. Asike , Jude

    January 25, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    it is very interesting anayzing your ingenuity on the formulation of language policy for Africa.I really savored the joy associated with this your initiatives to find a linguafranca for Africa, because,language is culturally a subjective system of reflecting peoples’ worldview. Language symbolizes the common beliefs, it is the instrument that transmite culture in every society.Thus, if culture is dynamic and not static, language should also be dynamic because, it is the instrument of transmition of culture. In fact, I believe in the term diglossia as a basis for the adoption of the diversity interest in the formulation of of language policy for Africa. Diglossia would help to retain the local individual Kowledges for genuine African development by transmiting it’s very essences of identity to official language of Africa.

  4. WairimuM

    October 7, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    I love your posts, very well thought out!

    I used to get upset when people asked me what my mother tongue was and when I had learnt English. Until I realised that for many, many people in the world, English is a second language and they strongly identify with their own culture and language. You can check out my very superficial thoughts on this topic (

    On the other hand, I think that many of our languages will continue to die out as the world changes and they do not evolve to keep up with the changes.

    You guys mentioned Swahili. Interestingly, Swahili stuck because it was a trader’s language: even today, those guys can discuss almost anything about the internet, science and technology in pure, flawless Swahili words that are not corruptions from English. I’m going out on a limb but I think that another reason that Swahili has spread so much is because of all the movement back and forth with the refugees and Idi Amin’s nasty army back in the 70s. You can see this because the further away it moves away from Tanzania, the more mutated it becomes- to the point that I can hardly understand a Congolese person speaking to me in his version of Swahili.

    • chikaforafrica

      October 8, 2012 at 10:49 am

      Thanks much, Wairimu. I just started reading your blog two weeks ago. It’s a very insightful one, and I really enjoyed reading the travel reflections. Where mother tongue is concerned, it is not either/or, but both/and. We can speak as many languages as are possible and necessary for us to thoroughly understand ourselves and our immediate environment, and to also to be able to compete globally. Best.


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