Developing Knowledge Societies: Africa Needs a Linguistic Revolution

African societies are on the brink of changing from postcolonial societies into global knowledge societies. Digitalization and globalization could enhance their transformation from knowledge-consuming to knowledge-producing societies, which would also help bring full mental decolonization to Africa. Just as important, it would open the way for African indigenous knowledge systems to enjoy recognition in the “North,” not to mention in other parts of the Global South. If it were not for the language issue.[1]

Regarding scientific and other academic knowledge output and transfer, the continent currently sits low on the global scale of scientific publications and industrial patents. Moreover, no African university ranks among the world’s topmost institutions. Language has a lot to do with this situation. Since colonial days, knowledge—automatically construed to mean knowledge from the North—comes to Africa wrapped in the languages of the former colonial masters. Formal education is based almost exclusively on these languages, which remain foreign to most Africans, no matter how hard they try to acquire them.

Being taught through English, French, or Portuguese would pose no problem, if learners had a realistic chance to acquire nearly perfect command of the language. This, however, is rarely the case. Learners with a background in indigenous African languages struggle with English, French, or Portuguese all their lives, and so do many of their teachers at school and lecturers at university.

Further and even worse, the postcolonial diglossia situation involving several languages attributes “superiority” to the European languages of their former colonial masters, against which African languages are automatically defamed as “inferior.” This language attitude, deeply rooted in racism and Social Darwinism, is fatal to optimal education in Africa, which must rely on both indigenous and foreign languages to be efficient and become sustainably effective. Reinforced over generations, this language attitude has become deeply entrenched in the minds of people, both African and non-African. It mirrors the ideology of European exceptionalism and Northern supremacy manifest in the label “The Age of the White Man.” This ideology legitimizes the hegemonic dominance of the North over the South in all forms of imperialism and colonialism, including apartheid, whereby language is a key issue.

Europe, however, cannot serve as a model for Africa. First, European statehood is based on the ideology of the linguistically, culturally, and ethnically largely homogenous nation-state. Modern nation-states in Europe tend to rest on a one-state, one-nation, one-language philosophy. This conception makes no sense for Africa given her linguistic, cultural, and ethnic plurality and diversity. Well over 2,000 indigenous languages are at home there. Second, European nation-states can generally be run through a single national language, which happens to be the vast majority’s mother tongue. This language is also usually well mastered by the few linguistic minorities on the national territory.

In Africa, states may consist of nothing but minorities, or the minorities together account for the majority of the population. In only very few countries is a single majoritarian language shared by up to 90 percent of the population, like in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho. These are exceptions. Home to more than 2,000 indigenous languages, Africa makes the use of only one language for national communication and education impossible. On average, every African state comprises a population that speaks 40 languages. In practical terms, these numbers range from 5 to 500 indigenous African languages per country.

The colonizers believed that their own languages would be “neutral” and “unifying.” Besides enabling imperial governance, they could eventually replace the plethora of indigenous languages. History has proven them wrong. African languages are flourishing, and the numbers of their speakers are increasing due to demographic growth, but still African governments keep following this falsified line of thought. The notions of anglophone, francophone, and lusophone Africa remain myths. Most likely, less than 20 percent of the population uses European languages comfortably and efficiently on a daily basis. Their function as inter-ethnic lingua francas tends to be overrated. It is comparatively low. Africans widely enjoy individual multilingualism, but they prefer to use African lingua francas for communication beyond their respective home languages. The European languages are confined to the ghettos of educated, mainly urban minorities, thereby creating a language-based postcolonial class divide, while also representing a promise of upward social mobility.

The African situation has parallels in European history, a history with elements that bear overstating for heuristic purposes. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther set off a chain of events that brought about the Reformation. This wide-ranging process played a major role in Europe’s breakthrough to modernity, leading to the Enlightenment and laying the foundations of so-called European exceptionalism by way of the so-called Scientific Revolution. All this was followed in the nineteenth century by the Industrial Revolution. Colonialism was an essential part of this development because the Spanish and Portuguese Reconquista (reconquest) of the Iberian peninsula over nearly eight centuries was completed in 1492. Having expelled Islamic powers from the Iberian Peninsula, Europeans next set foot on African soil. This development coincided with the “discovery” of the Americas the same year. Henceforth, European colonialism expanded dynamically and began to dominate what we now refer to as the Global South.

If Luther’s Reformation started because of a theological issue in 1517, it involved three “revolutions” that hold lessons for present-day Africa: an ideological and political revolution, a technological revolution, and a linguistic revolution. This is not to say that Europe presents a normative developmental model but rather that we can understand this part of its history as a useful case in point.

The Ideological-Political Revolution

Luther took issue with specific aspects of Roman Catholic dogma, which in his day also entailed consequences for the political power of the Pope in Rome. The Pope had been offering indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This practice turned into aggressive fund-raising by “pardoners,” who took advantage of the ignorance of the illiterate masses and induced the poor across Europe to fill the treasure boxes of the Pope in Rome. Consequently, the issue widened to questioning the political hegemonic domination of the “secular” powers in Europe by the Pope. In the end, Luther shattered the unity of Occidental Christianity and induced the independence of regional polities from the central authority of the Pope. This fostered later developments toward the separation of church and state, individual freedom, and in the long run even democracy. It saw the beginnings of “mass” education, insofar as it led to abolishing the hegemonic dominance of Latin as almost the sole language of education, particularly higher education, replacing it, or complementing it, with regional vernaculars. These hitherto largely unwritten languages, of course, had first to be codified, standardized, and intellectualized for use in education and public communication.

The parallels to Africa are obvious. The Pope and Latin in Europe on the eve of the Reformation correspond to the former colonial masters and their languages in Africa today. Africa’s “reformation” sails under Africa-positive rhetorical labels such as “African renaissance” and “mental decolonization,” which hitherto remain empty sloganeering. The idea should be to finally put an end, after achieving political independence more than half a century ago, to continued hegemonic dominance through linguistic and cultural imperialism, which maintains, for instance, that European languages are “superior” to African languages and understands the latter as mere “dialects” rather than proper “languages,” thus deserving discrimination as “tribal gibberish.” As was shown in the case of “high domain” Latin versus the “low domain” vernaculars of Early Modern Europe, there is nothing that European languages can do that African languages cannot do. In Europe, Latin and even Ancient Greek—the literary languages of classical antiquity—continued to survive as school subjects for the elite into the twentieth century. Likewise, English, French, and Portuguese must survive in Africa within the framework of additive bi- or trilingualism, that is, in education systems that are built on mother tongue–based multilingualism. The idea is not to substitute one for the other but to enhance access to both—African and foreign languages—in order to unlock the often still hidden treasures of global knowledge, no matter the language in which they are encapsulated.

Multilingual event of the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign in Cape Town, South Africa (run by the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, or PRAESA). Source: news item on DGMT, April 8, 2015.

The Technological Revolution

Luther’s time took advantage of the printing revolution that followed Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type to produce multiple and identical copies of the same books and pamphlets relatively quickly. This was the beginning of mass media so to speak. Fast and cheap printing allowed the distribution of ubiquitous pamphlets to be read to the illiterate masses in marketplaces and churches. This also revolutionized communication in general, from elitist and oligarchic to democratic.

Today, we have digitalization and desktop publishing. Any language, African or other, regardless of special phonetic characters, can be printed or made electronically available on digital media at very low cost. In other words, cost presents no barrier to the re-empowerment of African languages. Africa is already embracing digitalization and global communication even in her many “home languages.” African languages are underrepresented on the World Wide Web, but they thrive in oral communication driven by human language technology. This marriage of technology and speech brings us back to the beginning: Human language was used exclusively by mouth for many millennia after the emergence of Homo sapiens, before writing systems were invented for rather special purposes in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt only a few thousand years ago.

The Linguistic Revolution

Scripture had once been reproduced exclusively in Latin, whereas Luther pushed literacy in the vernacular. His translation of the New Testament (1522) into a mainly spoken language, German, made him the first “intellectualizer” of Standard German. German, a language of poor farmers and craftsmen, was to become a global language of philosophy and science a few centuries later, not least thanks to the efforts of the intellectual heroes of Weimar Classicism who made this a project of their own. The development of Standard German allowed mass education to take root. It made Germany a home of philosophy, literature, and science, and it stimulated her ascent to economic and technological leadership. Inside and outside German-speaking Europe, education via the vernacular languages also eventually overcame oligarchic regimes, fostering civil society and democracy.

Postcolonial Africa could expect much the same. A long overdue linguistic revolution needs to make African languages the default media of instruction. It needs to give global languages like English their place as well-taught language subjects as well as involve them for translanguaging purposes in the classroom and for translating printed texts to access imported knowledge. The racist prejudice of looking at African languages as ostensibly inferior must be overcome. Otherwise, nondemocratic oligarchic regimes will prevail by taking advantage of an unjust language barrier that keeps the undereducated masses down.

The desired overall outcome would be to establish optimized mass education on the basis of full command of the relevant African languages in a given area, thereby facilitating in-depth access to African cultural heritage. This is possibly the only way for Africans to liberate themselves from a copy-cat existence of trying to imitate their former colonial masters, including in the latter group’s restricted monolingual practice. On the foundation of such mother tongue–based multilingual education, individual multilingualism beyond the mother tongue would involve languages of wider communication, including those of European provenance as well as Arabic or Mandarin, for that matter. We could expect much desired reciprocal gains for the evolving global knowledge societies—in Africa as much as elsewhere on our planet.

Summary and Outlook

In political terms, monolingual education through foreign, that is, ex-colonial languages perpetuates linguistic imperialism and colonialism. In educational terms, it is responsible for the near ubiquitous collapse of formal education across Africa. Teaching African learners through English, French, or Portuguese creates high dropout rates and massive class repetitions, making it far from cost-efficient. It amounts to a waste of individual lives and public financial resources. As the South African sociolinguist Kathleen Heugh put it, “Most language models used in African education are designed to fail students.”[2] Africa needs mother tongue–based multilingual education involving both indigenous and global languages. Contrary to the general assumption, this would cost less than 2 percent of sub-Saharan national education budgets, with a return in five years, according to Heugh’s findings.

Time is ripe for change. Africa is advancing in terms of digitalization; already the density of cell phones is amazing. Mental decolonization is on the intellectual agenda with experts advocating multilingual education from kindergarten to university. The standardization and intellectualization of African languages are underway, but they need much more support from all quarters.

H. Ekkehard Wolff is Emeritus Professor of African Linguistics (Afrikanistik ), Leipzig University, Germany, and Visiting Professor under a Hugh le May Fellowship, School of Languages and Literatures, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

  1. For a detailed discussion of the issues raised in this essay, see H. Ekkehard Wolff, Language and Development in Africa: Perceptions, Ideologies and Challenges (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).  ↩
  2. Kathleen Heugh, “Implications of the Stocktaking Study of Mother–Tongue and Bilingual Education in Sub–Saharan Africa: Who Calls Which Shots?,” in Multilingualism and Exclusion: Policy, Practice and Prospects, ed. P. Cuvelier et al. (Pretoria: Von Schaik Publishers, 2007), 52.  ↩
Suggested Citation: H. Ekkehard Wolff, “Developing Knowledge Societies: Africa Needs a Linguistic Revolution,” History of Knowledge, February 21, 2018,