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Languages

What language do you speak in Africa?

I was asked this question after I was urged to say something in "African," and all I could do was smile as I tried explaining that there was no language called "African," just as there is no language called Canadian or American. Africa has over 1000 languages that are local to the continent, before those of the former colonialists that are also in use. As a result, most Africans who grew up on the continent speak at least two languages, many speak more than that. Some African languages that are well known out of the continent are Kiswahili, Hausa, Yoruba, and Lingala. Within some African countries, there are hundreds of languages and dialects. In the same vein, Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin observe: 'There are many languages in Africa; 800 is the traditional number. Joseph Greenberg, in the latest edition of his classic monograph Languages of Africa, found adequate records to consider and classify 730, but says the number may be well over the traditional 800" (68). Toyin Falola's perspective is equally revealing:

Africans speak a variety of languages, over a thousand, mainly indigenous to them. These languages are very much connected to their cultures and identities. A language group could constitute a nation — not a tribe, which is sometimes used in a derogatory way to mean inferior language and people. Speakers of a language can run into millions, but there are also languages spoken by smaller numbers. The majority of the languages are old, evidence that many groups and cultures have inhabited the continent for centuries.

Contacts with outsiders have led to the use of additional languages, such as Arabic, and European languages, notably English, French, and Portuguese, in areas formerly colonized by European powers. In the past, a number of languages were understood over wide areas, notably Arabic, Hausa, Fulfulde, and Swahili. (Key Events 6-7)

Accordingly, it is difficult to say this is the language spoken in Africa, as it all depends on the individual concerned, and where he or she is from. Even then, those who have traveled much within Africa may also have learned different languages from far-off parts of the continent.

Do you speak English in Africa?

English is one of the many foreign languages spoken in parts of Africa as a result of the colonial encounter. When the English came to Africa, they brought their language too as a way of intensifying their grip on the continent. This was done by all the colonizing countries; the result is that today many different foreign languages such as French, Portuguese, and Italian, are also spoken on the continent. Countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Zambia, Liberia, Tanzania, Cameroon, and Kenya use English; Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Gabon use French; Angola, Portuguese; whereas Italian is dying out in Somalia, where only a few older people in the South can still remember the language.

Why do Africans find it hard pronouncing some English words?

The reasons why some Africans find it hard to pronounce certain English words are similar to the reasons why some Westerners stutter uncontrollably and end up saying something else when they attempt pronouncing words from any African language. Too begin with, when this problem is faced by new speakers of the English language, then it is just a question of their articulators not being used to some of the sounds of this new language. It is just like learning to play a musical instrument for the first time; one's fingers struggle to get used to the chord positions at the beginning, but then everything becomes smooth and without any difficulties with time. Even then, these languages—African languages and English—are phonemically and phonetically different, hence the characteristic awkwardness that accompanies early efforts at speaking the one or the other, whether they are African or English. Again, because of the tonal nature of many African languages as opposed to the stress pattern in the English language, for example, most Africans tend to position their stress wrongly just as Westerners attempt stressing words in African languages, instead of simply changing their tone to effect a change in meaning. The problem besetting the African in the face of some Western languages, like English, is further exacerbated by the fact that Africans are multi-linguists, and so there is some interference from the different languages they speak. The interference, however, depends on where the African speaking is from, as different native African languages affect the speaking of English differently, mindful of the sounds they have in their own languages which may not exist in English, and those that they may not have which are found in English. The untrained Mankon man from the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon may find it hard pronouncing the [p] sound since it does not exist in his language. The result is that whenever the untrained Mankon person tries pronouncing English words with the [p] sound, it is the [b] sound that is heard. And so for example, instead of saying "Paul" the untrained Mankon speaker of English will say "Baul."

What are those weird clacking sounds you people produce when speaking your language?

They are linguistic sounds used for communicating meaning, depending on the situation, just like the sounds of the English language. The only difference here is that these sounds are peculiar to parts of Africa—East and South Africa especially, and they are not weird. They are merely strange because they do not exist in Western, and even some African languages.

 
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