Using our own languages is the first step to an African Renaissance

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Using our own languages is the first step to an African Renaissance

By Apioth Mayom Apioth


African children must have education in their first language. (Greg Westfall under a Creative Commons Licence)

It is a very good time now to return to our African linguistic roots. In 1884, controlling countries divided up Africa into areas that now speak French, Portuguese, English and Italian. And now, when there are problems, the English-speaking countries group together to fight against the French-speaking countries, or the Portuguese against the Italian. We are not improving the European languages, but we need to understand that Africans cannot continue to use the languages of other countries. We could make the foreign languages richer by translation; great works of literature could be discovered. There are excellent novels like Camara Laye’s The Dark Child, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child, but there are not many of these. And there might be many more genius writers who do not know these foreign languages.

Europe was in the dark ages, until they stopped using Latin and had the enlightennent period called the Renaissance. If we want a Renaissance in Africa, we must go back to our native languages. These languages are rich with progress; foreign languages are very attractive, but we do not have a deeper understanding of their culture. We have a great attachment to our native languages, almost spiritual. That connection makes it easy for us to work with impossibilities. We and our languages have become one, we cannot now separate ourselves from our languages. It is not just our genius that we are trying to get from our native languages; stories and myths and even knowledge of ecosystems and species of both plants and animals, and how they relate to our homes – we could lose all this if we do not get an answer to this problem. Sometimes, a scientist says, ‘I have discovered this species of plant, and I have discovered that species.’ But these scientists quickly publish their discoveries before they ask the indigenous communities if they knew anything about the species. Most of the time, the local community knew the names of the species of plants and animals they have “discovered” already. Also, many of today’s indigenous communities can make medicines and medicinal herbs from wild species of plants and animals they have worked with for hundreds of years.

In the near future, people say that dominant languages, that are not influenced by others, will be more important. More and more languages will be influenced by the powerful languages. Many more languages will disappear totally. Language will be more important to as a way to take one culture to another. We don’t know where the next dominant languages are going to come from, so we should value all languages more now.

And we need to return to our native languages. The empires of the capitalist West took way our native languages, but then they gave them back to us, changed. Now we need to look after them and value them. Our world is becoming smaller and smaller, and we have to return to familiar systems: our mother tongues. We all need real systems: Dinka of South Sudan, Shona of Zimbabwe, or Yoruba of Nigeria – to communicate our experience to the world. It is time to wake up our old native languages. When the world finally becomes a ‘global village’, we can't be proud about how much we have achieved as a race; instead, we want to communicate our unique experience to the world; to improve the future for people. Our world is always changing. We always need clever new ideas to save us from problems, and experiences of life and death. It is time to put more effort and resources into our native languages, part of the spiritual attachment of the land of Africa. If we don’t value our native languages, we won’t be able to help improve life for people in the future, because we will be communicating in European languages. We produce better ideas in our own languages.

I am from South Sudan and I live in the United States. I have a degree in Social Sciences from the Evergreen State College. I am a lifelong learner: I read books when I get a little time off from work.

Read more: the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist on ‘Save our Speech!’ The Politics of Language Loss.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).