The Elephant in the Room: Citizenship and language (a reply to Bjarnesen et al)

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On 23 January, this website published a blog post by Jesper Bjarnesen et al, discussing the challenges and opportunities for citizenship in African countries. They call for a reflection on citizenship as a ‘social contract’, including rights and obligations. In their words, ‘By stressing bonds rather than dividing lines it offers opportunities to reduce conflicts based on seeing those who are different as “other”.’ However, what is remarkable to us is that their contribution does not discuss the role that language plays in promoting citizenship.

In an article in Forum for Development Studies the authors do mention language, but always with a negative connotation: as exacerbating domestic tensions, as articulating clientelist relations, or in connection to colonial divide-and-rule policies. It is almost as if Africans are being chastised for speaking anything other than French or English on the basis that indiginous languages are an inherent source of division. In this contribution, we would like to offer a different perspective, one that takes the need for promoting indigenous languages as a key ingredient for promoting modern citizenship in Africa.

Everything that we know, from “Babel” to linguistic anthropology to UNESCO findings, indicates that the mother tongue or closest equivalent is best for learning and communicative competence, and essential for forging nationhood and citizenship. In his landmark 1996 book Citizen and Subject, Mamdani decisively influenced how the word “citizen” can be used in an African context. Citizens are people who are enabled to participate in democratic decision-making – in contrast to “subjects”, who are not.

It is not difficult to see how this is related to language. In the colonial period, the language of administration was the colonial language, because the colonial authorities never had any intention of giving access to administrative, court, or political systems to ordinary people – in Mamdani’s terms, the ordinary people were subjects, not citizens. With independence and democracy, this changed, at least notionally. The aim became that all citizens have access to the state institutions meant to service them. If those institutions function in a national language, then all citizens should have access to that national language, but this has never been the case.

What we have witnessed instead is a lacuna in language policy: as Lahra Smith (2013) points out: ‘there are significant democratic costs to ignoring language diversity or pursuing a policy of linguistic domination’. She points out that a language policy needs to deliver three types of political goods: 

  1. Access to information: all citizens should have equal access to the information, education, and opportunities of all others.   
  2. Autonomy: for multiculturalist theorists autonomy is a prerequisite for democratic participation. This means that citizens must have the freedom to make their own choices, also in the language area.
  3. Recognition: symbolic affirmation of citizen identity.

Current language policies in Africa fail miserably on all these points. Albaugh (2014) estimates the proportion of people in sub-Saharan Africa that ‘speak’ a European language as between 17 and 37%. This relates to what the World Bank has termed ‘learning poverty’, bench-marked by the ability to read a simple text by the age of 10. In sub-Saharan Africa, under 14% have this ability, compared to almost 90% in Europe and Central Asia. How can we expect meaningful citizenship to develop in countries where four out of five people do not speak the official language, or where six out of seven children cannot read a simple text?

Let’s try to examine what this means for a country like Nigeria, currently in the middle of a heavily contested election. Of course, candidates want to reach out to the public. Therefore, political parties and candidates use multiple languages, often in a mixed way, in rallies, commercials, and on social media. But this is a one-way street: people are spoken to and are not expected to speak themselves. Debates, both at the national and state levels, are held in (Nigerian) English. Laws and regulations are promulgated in English. Courts speak English, and so do the media.

This situation means that, effectively, the majority of the population face severe constraints in following or challenging what their elected representatives actually do or say. The latter cannot easily be held accountable, and it is this lack of accountability that is often cited as one of the key issues plaguing the Nigerian democracy for decades.

Stating the problem is easy – finding answers is difficult.

This is one reason why the language issue is so often ignored: trying to find a way out seems a hopeless task. For Nigeria, with its more than 500 languages, there seems to be no practical solution. English is seen as the one neutral, unifying language that can serve all. Yet, it robs the majority of Nigerians of effective citizenship. Hopefully,  an increasing numbers of Nigerians will receive better education, leading to a gradual solution of the problem. The indigenous language is critical to this trajectory.

As we have demonstrated in a recent article, it is fiction to think that African educational systems will be able to give enough of its people sufficient knowledge of English – just as the European systems would not be able to do this if Europe were to choose to use Mandarin Chinese as its common language. A radically different solution will be needed – one that is in line with what is happening in Europe, but also for example in India: Nigeria will officially have to become a multilingual nation, which will have to rely on translations between its various official languages in order to provide meaningful citizenship to its people.

But how can this be achieved? How is it done in the rest of the world? The secret lies in not using every language for formal purposes, but in carefully choosing a set of languages. These should be chosen in such a way that every citizen has access to at least one language that is relatively easy to learn due to its proximity to what people already know. Thus, in Germany, Hochdeutsch is used by speakers of Bavarian, Franconian, and a number of other German-like languages. These are not all mutually intelligible – but  learning formal Hochdeutsch is a lot easier for all these speakers, than learning, for example, Polish or Yoruba would be.

Admittedly, the language ecology of Nigeria is more complex than that of Germany. However, in the EU, with 447 million inhabitants, there are 24 official languages; likewise, for Nigeria, with 213 million inhabitants, around twelve official languages would be sufficient. While this is more than the traditional three ‘majority languages’ (Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa), it is much lower than the 500+ languages existing in the country. In addition to the three mentioned above, the country could deploy languages like Edo, Efik, Ibibio, Izon, Fulfulde, Kamwe, Kanuri, Nupe and Tiv as national/official languages. Such solutions could work for other African countries as well.

This approach would mean a break from the traditional dominance in Africa of the former colonial languages (although they would not disappear) – but it is doable. A discussion along these lines is long overdue – we can no longer afford to discuss citizenship in Africa without confronting the issue of language, the elephant in the room.

For those interested – a webinar series on these and related issues will start on 27 February.

Dr. Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju teaches English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria.

Dr. Bert van Pinxteren is a guest researcher at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics.

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