With more than 2,000 languages spoken throughout the continent, Africa is one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse areas on the planet. Language is significant to culture in Africa because language a central part of the human experience. Through language, people represent, interpret and organize reality. In this way, shared language facilitates the development of social ties between individuals and serves as the foundation for group cohesion because people who share a language also share norms, ideas and values about the world they live in.  This is because language is acquired through socialization and interaction with others in a group. Since language is acquired through social interactions, it is embedded with social norms, values and ideas. An example of this is the use of the word ‘colored’ to describe people during the 20th century. The word communicates euro-centric values and hegemonic ideas that position light-skinned people as the standard, and those with darker skin as a deviation, having been ‘colored.’ Children who learn to use this word to describe people are also learning to evaluate, classify and reduce a wide range of diverse people according to skin color. The American Civil Rights movement and the African nationalist movements in the mid-twentieth century popularized different norms, values and ideas about identity that went far beyond skin color. New identity labels, or words,  such as ‘African’, ‘African- American’ and ‘Afro-Carribean’, emphasize equality, cultural heritage, nationalism, and diversity (Asante 2007).  Therefore, language both informs and is informed by society, culture and history. The survival of African languages is key to the survival of African culture.

Language in Society

Socio-linguistics is the scientific study of the relationships between language variation and social contexts in the past and present (Romaine 2000; Trudgill 2000). Language change through time can also reflect historical changes, and linguistic similarities and differences can shed light on the historical relationships between different groups of people. While shared language can forge social bonds among people, language difference can divide people by excluding those who communicate differently. Research on linguistic variation has shown that social differences and hierarchies are expressed and reinforced by differences in the ways that people use language. In many ways, language can reinforce inequality by codifying differences in social status, class, ethnicity, race, gender, education and other forms of inequality (Lakoff 2000; Labov 1972a). People also use and evaluate speech within social, political, and economic contexts (Kottak 2012). What this means is that people ascribe meanings to languages and the way languages are used according to different social, political and economic circumstances. In Morocco for example, many urban and educated mothers choose to speak to their children in French, the former colonial language rather than one of the indigenous Amazighe languages or even the predominant Arabic language (Sadiqi 2005). This is because French is symbolically associated with power; it was the language of the former colonial French government and it continues to be the primary language used in schools, government and urban cultural centers. Because of this, French is associated with modernity, and speaking French offers greater social, political and economic opportunities than the indigenous languages. Like many parents in post-colonial states, a large number of urban parents in Morocco choose to speak to their children in the language of the former colonial oppressor rather than the indigenous language spoken by their family’s social group. Pierre Bourdieu (1982) refers to this linguistic hegemony as a type of symbolic domination, because even people who are not included in the dominant language social group oftentimes accept its authority and prestige. When the dominant language provides access to resources and opportunity, it becomes a type of symbolic capital because it can be used as leverage to acquire or increase wealth (Bourdieu 1984; Gal 1989; Lakoff 2000). This is particularly the case in areas where education and job opportunities are primarily conducted in former colonial languages such as French, English; people who are not familiar with the former colonial language are excluded from those opportunities.

Language Diversity and Loss

Of approximately 7,000 remaining languages, about 20% are currently endangered (Maugh 2007). As linguist K. David Harrison states, ‘When we lose a language, we lose centuries of thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscape, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.’ In his book, When Languages Die (2007), he notes that the world’s linguistic diversity has been cut in half since European colonial expansion was initiated 500 years ago. Research by linguists can help protect endangered languages, such as this research by The Living Tongues Institute:

Biocultural Diversity in Africa

Africa is not only rich in linguistic diversity, it is also a hot spot for biological diversity. Research has also shown that there is a positive correlation between linguistic diversity and biological diversity. Areas with high linguistic diversity are located in areas with high biodiversity (Stepp, Casteneda, and Cervone 2005). This is referred to as biocultural diversity. As we can see from the map below, Africa hosts some of the most bioculturally diverse areas in the world.  Language and culture are important to the environment because localized information is coded, or stored, in the words and meanings that comprise the local lexicon. Culture loss can impact the environment, and and when the environment is destroyed, the language and cultural systems linked to the environment are changed. Now that we have a better understanding of the relationships between language, culture and the environment, we can move forward and explore Environment, Conservation and Education in Africa. 

For Discussion: Explore the Language Study page on the African Studies at Santa Fe website and use the information in this lesson to describe the linguistic landscape within your selected country. Include the indigenous and colonial languages as well as the estimated number of people (or percentage of the population) that use each language. What is/are the ‘official’ language(s) of education and government, and how does it affect the people who speak only one indigenous language? In what ways has economic or educational policies affected language use in the country?