Black History Month: A good time to learn an African language

African languages

Of course, every month is a good month for learning an African language. But within a month of focusing on Black achievements and contributions to politics, society, culture and all aspects of life, the role of language is placed centre stage. 

After all, how can we trace, discover, understand and celebrate the innovations and ideas within, from and linked to Africa, without African languages? How can we engage and understand history without engaging with and understanding the peoples and cultures which played key parts in these histories? And then, how can we engage with and understand the peoples and cultures which played key parts in these histories without engaging and understanding the languages they use. Languages, plural.

The majority of African societies are multilingual, and each and every language taking part in African language ecologies (and not only African ones, of course) matters. Even if English, French, or Portuguese are part of the repertoire of so many African discourses, without also appreciating Swahili, Yorùbá, or IsiZulu understanding of these discourses will remain partial, limited. 

Each language contains its own semantic and epistemic system – different ways of seeing and analysing the world around us, different categories and expressions to come to terms with our human experience, and different histories and cultural memories. Learning a different language helps us to understand these systems, different from the ones we are used to. Through this we are better equipped to understand our shared experience, but also ourselves. 

In my first year as a lecturer at SOAS, I met Jekura Kavari, then a PhD student in our Department of African Languages and Cultures, who is now the Head of the Department of Language and Literature Studies of the University of Namibia. The meeting was the beginning of a fruitful academic collaboration on the linguistics of Otjiherero, a major language of Namibia, lasting to today. 

As part of our work together, I started learning Otjiherero, under Jekura’s good tutelage, and among the things I learned were numbers: íímwe ‘one’, ímbárì ‘two’, índátú ‘three’, and then higher numbers – tens, twenties, hundreds, thousands and then éyòví rímwè nòmás̠éré mùvyú nà íné – ‘1,904’ (literally, ‘thousand one and hundreds nine and four’). Why of all the possible numbers was I taught 1,904?  

As it turned out it wasn’t so much one thousand nine hundred and four, but nineteen hundred and four – 1904 – the number of the year inscribed in Herero cultural memory. This was the year of the Battle of the Waterberg, when on 11th August, German colonial troops began a carefully orchestrated, brutal and cowardly campaign against Herero men, women and children; it was the beginning of, in the words of the historian David Olusoga, the “Kaiser’s Holocaust”. The significance of the event for Herero cultural and political history is reflected in the semantic map of numbers the Otjiherero language. 1904 – éyòví rímwè nòmás̠éré mùvyú nà íné – compares to 1066 or 9/11 in English; numbers which refer to dates, dates which changed the destiny of the people.   

Words like this are entry points to different semantic networks. Finding mismatches between the languages we know and the new language we learn opens up spaces for reflection and enquiry. Things don’t have to be this way – there are other ways of conceptualisation and of seeing the world. It is an experience which makes us more culturally intelligent and humbler in our cultural assumptions. 

Language learning can indeed be a humbling experience. It subverts established power structures and hegemonic discourses. In can disrupt often repeated arguments about how things are – in English – when there is a different way of looking at the matter. For example in Kiswahili, the day begins with sunrise at 1 o’clock; you don’t start your day at 7 am, when seven hours have already passed! Looked at from another perspective: What world are we making if we are only using English? What perspectives do we adopt, what semantic system do we employ? 

African languages are particularly important in this context. More than 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa, some by small communities of speakers, others by millions; some with a written standard and extensive written literature, others where rich verbal art which is celebrated orally; some used as public language, others restricted to the initiated. All of them are valuable, complex, meaningful. 

Against a long history of colonial oppression, where African languages were marginalised and devalorised, African languages have proved resilient. Multilingual practices defied colonial categorisations and African languages served as vehicles for anti-colonial resistance. They are spoken today in cities and the countryside, at home and abroad, they are used in education and media, and many have now become official languages. New forms of language mixing are explored and the understanding of multilingual patterns is probing the theoretical foundations of language sciences. 

Thinkers like Neville Alexander, Ayo Bamgbose, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have developed comprehensive arguments for the role of African languages on the continent and globally – Ngũgĩ most recently in August this year, when he spoke on African Languages and the African Renaissance.

In light of the increasing awareness of the importance of African languages – for social and cultural identity, for education and training, participation and governance – more emphasis is also being placed on learning African languages. 

At present African languages are taught in many colleges and universities in Africa as well as in Europe, North America and Asia. The most widely taught African language is undoubtedly Kiswahili, but there are also courses for languages such as Somali, Wolof, Yorùbá, Zulu and many others. 

In addition to university teaching, there are also opportunities to learn an African language through community and cultural centres, in professional language schools, and through private tuition. In order to address this interest, there are a number of textbooks, learning materials, and online courses which students can use independently or as part of a language class. 

The current Covid-19 pandemic with lockdowns and travel restrictions in so many places has made us all more online literate. We have become better at the use of virtual communication tools, social media and blended learning models. And so studying African languages has become easier, and linking up with the communities of speakers in Africa is more possible than ever. 

So maybe it is true that especially this month – Black History Month – is a good month to start learning an African language.

Professor Lutz Marten is Professor of African and General Linguistics in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at SOAS.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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