The role of colonial languages in language endangerment in Africa

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There has been some discussion in the literature on endangered languagesabout the role – or lack thereof – of colonial languages in presenting a threatto African languages. The view most often offered suggests that in Africa it hastypically been African languages, in the form of national languages and regionallingua francas, that endanger smaller, local languages. If this is the case, thetask of linguists concerned with the causes of language endangerment is tounderstand why Africa has not felt the threat of colonial languages in the sameway or to the same extent as other regions of the world, such as the Americasor Australia. In this paper I re-examine the question of the role of colonial languagesin language endangerment in Africa. A review of literature on colonialistlanguage ideologies and attitudes towards African languages, together withthe results of several sociolinguistic surveys into language choice and attitudes,leads me to question the prevailing view. Whether colonial languages are replacing– i.e. directly replacing – African languages is only part of the story. Theiruse reduces African languages in terms of both prestige and structure, and thiscontributes to their endangerment. Finally, and from a more general perspective,the pressure to create a ‘modern nation state’, on a Western (colonial)model, in requiring a single unifying language, must be seen as an importantfactor in language endangerment in Africa.


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