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									                   THE DEVELOPMENT OF AFRICAN LANGUAGES
                             FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

                                           Neville Alexander

The politics of language in post-colonial Africa
         The subject of this address1 is not a new one in South Africa or on the rest of the
continent. In post-colonial states such as Nigeria2, Somalia and Tanzania, advanced work
in this domain has been done for at least three decades and in our own context, work on
terminology for Afrikaans at the universities of Stellenbosch, Pretoria and elsewhere
became very well known in spite of the controversies around “Standard Afrikaans”. The
expertise and the resources that Afrikaans speaking linguists accumulated in this process
are now, paradoxically, beginning to benefit other African languages. However, it is
necessary to register the fact that in post-apartheid South Africa, as in most of the rest of
the continent, terminology development in African languages as a conscious practice is at
this stage not simply a matter of linguistics or of applied linguistics. In order to
understand why this is so, it is necessary that we consider a series of relevant extra-
linguistic questions before we look more closely at the technical “language” issue itself.
         To begin with, why do we have to deliberate on the development instead of
simply on the use, of African languages for science and technology? The answer to this
question relates directly to the low status of African languages in the world and, more
relevantly, on the African continent itself. On this occasion3, there is no need to address
the question in detail. Suffice it to say that because of the history of slavery, colonialism,
imperialism and apartheid, it is the European languages of conquest, specifically English,
French and Portuguese that have become the languages of science and technology in the
academies and among the intellectuals of Africa. With hardly any exceptions, no serious
attempt was made, until very recently, to develop registers for science and technology in
any major African language beyond what is necessary for basic education. There are

  Seminar paper delivered on 25 May 2004 at the Tshwane University of Technology, Garankuwa.
  A pathfinding paper is Bamgbose 1987.
  There is a wealth of literature on the linguistic and social history of African languages. A useful modern
introduction is Mazrui and Mazrui 1998

some cases of such language development attempts in West and East Africa as well as in
the Horn, but most of these stem from the post-colonial period and, except for Kiswahili,
none of them went very far and this fact is undoubtedly one of the main factors for the
explanation of the relative underdevelopment of modern science and technology in
Africa. By way of a contrasting argument, Dlodlo (1999:321) points out that the
widespread translation of the Bible into local indigenous languages by European and
African missionaries may be one of the reasons for the success of Christianity in Africa.
          Reduced to a generalised statement, I would suggest that we can only understand
this lack of language development as the result of a combination of three core elements.
There is, firstly, the entrenched monolingual habitus among the elites of Africa and, by a
process of mediation, among the “common people” themselves. This habitus, ironically,
refers not to one or other African language as one would expect, but to the language of
the former colonial power, notably English, French and Portuguese. These are, even
today, fifty years after the first independent African states came into being, the languages
of power that have an evident market value by means of which well-remunerated jobs
and high social status are accessible. Those individuals who have acquired proficiency in
these languages, with the usual exceptions, become ipso facto members of the ruling
elite, since knowledge of these languages is, in Pierre Bourdieu’s (1991:14-15) analytical
framework, tantamount to the ownership of “cultural capital” that entitles one to what he
calls “the profits of distinction”. It is also obvious that this monolingual habitus is the
consequence as well as the continuing cause of the political economy of neo-colonialism.
          Secondly, there is what I have called the “static maintenance syndrome” 4. This
means simply that most of them are willing to maintain their languages in the primary
domains of the family, community and religious institutions. However, they have come to
doubt that these languages can ever develop into languages of power. As a result, we
have the well known, indeed notorious, passionately-held belief among parents in English
orientated former colonies that unless their children learn English and are educated
through the medium of English, they will end up as unemployable social drop-outs. The
tragedy, as we all know, is that very few children will ever attain a level of proficiency in

    See Alexander 2002:119.

the English language such that they can genuinely empower themselves in top-of-the-
range jobs.
       The third element in this vicious triangle is “lack of political will”. This is just
another way of saying lack of imagination, lack of scientific information, and lack of
commitment to democracy and to the interests of the urban and the rural poor, who,
lamentably, continue to constitute the majority of our people. Ultimately, all the evasions
about the “costs of multilingualism” and the alleged “fact” that African languages “do not
have the words” that would allow them to be used as languages of teaching and
languages of tuition at higher levels of education, boil down to the fact that it is
convenient and profitable for the elites to continue to monopolise the languages of power
and, therefore, to find arguments for justifying the prioritisation of other social
imperatives ahead of the language question.

English or indigenous languages?
       Why should we use African languages in “the controlling domains of language”
(Sibayan 1999:471) if we already have albeit European languages that fulfil these
functions? This is without any doubt the most important “extra-linguistic” question we
have to answer. It is also one that we have to pose if we are not to waste our time in
discussing issues that are of no concern to the practitioners in the fields of science and
technology. There are at least four approaches towards finding the most relevant answers
to the question.
       The first, and probably the most obvious one to most people, is the nationalist
stance. Using African languages is a question of national, if not actually racial, pride.
Even though I am myself not motivated by this approach at all, I mention and discuss it
simply because I know that for very many people, it is considered to be a valid and
important approach. However, I am concerned about the divisive and unscholarly
implications of such an approach. Scholarship is after all an international, indeed
internationalist, practice and one must be suspicious of any attempt to restrict it within
the confines of a given “nation”. The important point is to draw a line between the

inescapable national space within which scholarship takes place and the attempt to
confine it artificially within a nationalist frame.
        The second approach, one which I consider to be more relevant, is the argument
of democracy. Essentially, the purpose of all scholarship is to produce knowledge that
can be used in order to empower all people. In South Africa, we have to develop African
languages for use in all domains of modern life so that any citizen or African person will
be able to use the language or languages s/he knows best in order to access and deploy
the relevant knowledge. If such knowledge is encoded only in a foreign or in a second
language, which the citizen does not command very well, s/he is necessarily at a
disadvantage, i.e., relatively disempowered. In post-apartheid South Africa, therefore, the
development of the African languages for use in high status functions is a necessary
aspect of the deepening and consolidation of the democracy we have attained thus far.
        The third reason for the development of African languages in the manner
discussed hitherto derives from learning theory. That is to say, people acquire and
understand concepts and explore the world into which they are born in their first or home
languages (“mother tongues”) initially. Without delving into the relevant psycholinguistic
and psychological theories on this occasion, I want to state clearly that the network of
associations and the semantic range implied by proficiency in any given language
constitute the ground upon which new or related concepts are placed and understood
intuitively, to be deepened and internalised as the result of further reflection, discussion
and analysis. This vital process is either impossible or extremely difficult if one is forced
to engage with such concepts (“new knowledge”) in a language one does not know well
enough. The latter situation leads to a lack of self-confidence, low self-esteem, reticence
and passivity and to an apparent lack of creative energy, i.e., mediocrity, and lack of
spontaneity. Scholars such as Prah (1995) and Djité (1997), among others, have pointed
out that one of the main reasons for the failure of economic development projects on the
continent is the fact that development “aid” comes packaged in foreign languages such as
English and French. This fact immediately excludes the common people, the peasants and
communal cultivators, whose indigenous knowledge is ignored and who, in turn, are
unable to understand or even accept the “modern” technological and scientific

approaches5. The blending of the traditional and the modern is essential if such
programmes are to work. This can only take place if the indigenous languages of the
people are used to convey the relevant science and technology. By using only foreign
languages in these powerful domains, we ipso facto cut off the modern sector from the
subsoil that can render it relevant to the majority of the people who, presumably, are to be
served through the introduction of modern science and technology. This has the
unintended consequence of turning the entire economic development enterprise outwards,
i.e., towards the foreign (Northern) countries, thus rendering the domestic economy even
more dependent on outside forces. The substratum from which new recruits to science
and technology can be recruited is thereby impoverished and the national economy and
national development become ineluctably tied to so-called expatriate experts.
           The final argument for the development of African languages for use in high
status functions is what I call the Renaissance argument. President Mbeki has declared
the 21st century to be the “African century” and proclaimed the African renaissance. One
of the unspoken implications of these programmes is precisely the development of the
African languages. For this reason, the African Union has accepted the African Academy
of Languages (ACALAN) as a specialised agency of the AU and there is a clear
commitment to the implementation of the updated and revised Language Plan of Action
for Africa, first formulated in 1986. These are at this stage no more than beacon-setting
exercises but they are exceptionally important in terms of both global and continental
scenarios. On this occasion, I cannot go into the detail I have gone into elsewhere 6 in this
connection. Suffice it to say that Africa, which is one of the most multilingual regions of
the world, has necessarily ranged itself on the side of those forces in the world that stand
for the maintenance of cultural and linguistic diversity as opposed to monocultural and
unipolar notions of the future of the human species. From the point of view of the
survival of the species and of life itself, this is an exceptionally important positioning,
one to which all worthwhile intellectual endeavour has to commit itself.

    For a detailed practical demonstration of this phenomenon, see Mshana 1992.
    See Alexander 2003.

Corpus development in language planning
       The systematic development and use of scientific and technological registers,
among others, is a normal activity in any language. Such development comes along with
need and use.
         Vocabulary expansion, which includes devising of terminology, is an
         important aspect of language planning. In some countries, there are
         special institutes, boards or committees charged with the responsibility
         of finding appropriate terms and putting a stamp of authority on their
         use, after generally ascertaining their acceptability. In most countries,
         however, there is no such central authority, but, even so, vocabulary
         expansion takes place through the efforts of teachers, authors, media
         practitioners, language associations, and other interested professional
         bodies (Bamgbose 1987:5).

Bamgbose distinguishes between the organic process of “vocabulary expansion” in which
all native speakers of the language concerned are normally and spontaneously involved,
because they have a good idea of the concept and the context for which a new term is
needed, and the technical process of “terminology creation” where, generally speaking,
only specialists are conversant with the concepts pertaining to a given discipline.
         It is for this reason that terminology work must be a collaborative effort
         between subject specialists, linguists, and competent language users.
         Any proposed term must pass the test of correctness in terms of the
         concept, viability in terms of the structure of the language, and
         acceptability from the point of view of the users (Bamgbose 1987:5).

From a language-planning perspective, terminology creation is only one albeit a very
important aspect of the corpus development of a language. One of the fundamental issues
to be agreed on by the linguists in this regard concerns the term-creation rules to be
adopted. Dlodlo (1999:324-325), for reasons that need not detain us here, prefers coining
new terms to direct borrowing. Essentially, he believes – correctly in my view - that the
intuitive understanding of the relationship between the underlying concept and the term
that would normally be implicit in this practice has many positive spin-offs.

         The best route is to create new words from and give scientific meaning
         to both new and existing Nguni vocabulary. In this way, the words used
         at school will be familiar and meaningful to the students’ everyday
         experience (Dlodlo 1999:324).

In the most “developed” languages, the rules of term creation are so well established that
the process can be said to be virtually automatic. In Africa, because of the use of the
European languages in these high status domains, in many cases, beyond grammatical
(morphological imperatives) even the rules of term creation in African languages have
not yet been the subject of consensual discussions.
           The development of science and technology registers for the African languages is
a sub-set of the process we call the “intellectualisation” of African languages. As
intimated above, this is not at all a peculiarly African phenomenon. All the most powerful
languages in the world have undergone, and continue to undergo, this process. There are
many scholarly treatments of this question, including recent analyses and discussions by
South African linguists and applied language scholars7. Suffice it to say that “…
(intellectualisation) … involves the development of registers in the academic and
technical domains of language use” (Llamson 2001:17). There is, in other words, an
established theory and many examples of the practice of intellectualisation of languages
drawn from many different regions of the world, including Africa itself. The examples of
Kiswahili and Afrikaans are probably the most immediately relevant to this discussion.
                     (In Tanzania) … the egalitarian post-Arusha Declaration (1967)
             language policy led to conscious and rigorous development of
             Kiswahili, including its terminological modernization, for use as a
             medium of instruction beyond lower primary education. Specific
             language planning agencies (LPAs) were established by government
             and charged with the technical development of Kiswahili. These
             include the Department of Kiswahili and the Institute of Kiswahili
             Research, both of the University of Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian
             Institute of Education, and the National Kiswahili Council (BAKITA =
             Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa). The latter LPA is the Kiswahili policy
             formulation agency whereas the former three LPAs are its operational
             arms, i.e. policy implementation organs. (Prof. H. Mwansoko. Personal

The texts by Sibayan, Llamson, Finlayson and Madiba, Dlodlo and Bamgbose, referred to
are useful starting points for anyone interested in the technical issues involved in
terminology creation and other aspects of corpus planning or intellectualisation of
languages in the Asian and African contexts. It is important to note that in South Africa,
    See, e.g., Finlayson and Madiba 2002.

we are very fortunate in that a relatively strong language infrastructure already exists.
What is required is optimal co-ordination and planning of all government as well as non-
government organisations that are active in this field.
           At this point, I want to draw attention to two important issues we need to address
as we embark on the long and uneven road of intellectualisation. The first of these takes
us back to the rules of term creation, since it involves the question of maximum inter-
translatability. This refers to the suggestion that has been made by many scholars to the
effect that across the continent, we should try to keep the terminology base as coherent
and common as possible. While we should avoid all artificial and absurd coinages, we
should, as far as possible use the same term stems across the continent and, wherever
possible, remain as close to the international usage as possible. I would suggest that terms
such as “atom”, which are essentially the same in most European languages, should be
accepted as borrowings into African languages, unless there are reasons for not doing so
in any given language. Others, such as “energy” should, as far as possible, be derived and
generalised from existing usages in some of the major languages of the continent. I know,
of course, that this is a highly complex and even idiosyncratic field, but I believe that we
should make definite catalytic suggestions, sooner rather than later, so that this vital
debate can take place in the academies and other research and development institutes
across the entire continent8.
           For similar and related reasons, it is my view that it is very important that the
existing orthographies (scripts) should as far as possible be standardised. According to
Llamson (2001:22),
                … the strictly one-to-one correspondence between phoneme and
                grapheme is not always easy to implement, even though it is the
                most efficient system. The reason for this is that when certain
                words have been in use in the community for a certain length of
                time, it acquires a visual identity of its own, and it seems to be a
                different word when it is spelled in a different way. It is much like
                meeting an old friend who now has dyed his hair blond and wears
                sunglasses to boot. He does not seem to be the same person
                anymore. …

    For a related well-reasoned, but in some respects different, view see Dlodlo 1999.

In our context, we might think of the orthographic difference between the Sotho of
Lesotho and that of the Free State province9. It would seem to me to be very necessary
that we convene a continent-wide conference on the orthographic conventions relating to
the languages of Africa, past, present and future, so that we can initiate a process of
orthographic convergence and, wherever possible, orthographic uniformity.

         In concluding, I want to raise the question of leadership. If we see ourselves as
organic intellectuals of the urban and the rural poor, we have to find the courage and the
entrepreneurial energy to “commit class suicide”, as Amilcar Cabral called on us to do
some forty years ago. Middle-class convenience and the exploitation of the cultural
capital that comes with that class location are ultimately a betrayal of the people we have
been educated to assist and to represent in our institutions and organisations. This implies
the formation and/or strengthening of organisations that promote the development and
use of African languages and literature and the mobilisation of people on a mass scale for
the realisation of their linguistic human rights.
         In saying this, I am all too conscious of the searing indictment implicit in the
matter-of-fact pronouncement by Mazrui and Mazrui (1998:64-65) to the effect that an
African scientist or scholar south of the Sahara, more or less, who does not know a
European language is “a sociolinguistic impossibility”. Similarly, their laconic statement
that no conference on these issues can be held exclusively in an African language,
besides being, as they state, an index to the intellectual dependence of Africans on the
North, tells us where we are parked, as it were. On the other hand, because of the real
danger of opening a Pandora’s box of ethnic or tribal competition and conflict, the
paradigm in which mobilisation should take place should always be a multilingual and
multicultural one. Nothing, however, should deter us from setting out on a road that
clearly leads to the destination we have struggled to reach for these many decades past.

 Under the leadership of Professor Kwesi Prah and the Centre for the Advanced Study of African Societies
(CASAS), this issue and other similar legacies of the missionary enterprise in Africa are being attended to.
CASAS has managed to get the most competent scholars from all relevant countries to work on the
harmonisation of the orthographies of the affected codes.

Alexander, N. 2002. Linguistic rights, language planning and democracy in post-
apartheid South Africa. In Baker, S. (ed.), Language Policy: Lessons from Global
Models. Monterey, CA.: Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Alexander, N. 2003. The African Renaissance and the Use of African Languages in
Tertiary Education. Praesa Occasional Papers, No. 13. Cape Town: Praesa/University of
Cape Town.
Bamgbose, A. 1987. A Guide to Terminology for African Language Education – Its
Selection and Harmonization. Dakar: BREDA
Batibo, H. 2000. Some key issues in the development and revision of orthographies in
Africa. 2nd National Synposium on Language Policy in Education. Local languages in
education, science and technology. Malawi 25 – 29 October, 2000.
Djité, P. 1993. Language and development in Africa. International Journal of the
Sociology of Language. (100/101)149-166.
Dlodlo, T. Science nomenclature in Africa: Physics in Nguni. Journal of Research in
Science Teaching. 36(3) 321-331.
Finlayson, R. and Madiba, M. 2002. The intellectualization of indigenous languages of
South Africa: challenges and prospects. Pretoria: Unpub. Mimeo.
Llamson, T. 2001. Intellectualization of Filipino: an update. Philippine Journal of
Linguistics. 32(1) 17 - 29.
Mazrui, A. and Mazrui, A. 1998. The Power of Babel. Oxford: James Currey.
Mshana, R. 1992. Insisting on Peoples’ Knowledge to Resist Developmentalism. Peasant
Communities as Producers of Knowledge for Social Transformation in Tanzania.
Erziehung und Gesellschaft im internationalen Kontext, No. 9. Frankfurt am Main: IKO
Mwansoko, H. 2004. Personal communication.
Prah, K. 1995. Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological Development in Africa..
Bonn: German Foundation for International Development.
Sibayan, B. 1999. TheIntellectualization of Filipino. Manila: The Linguistic Society of
the Philippines.

Neville Alexander
Director: PRAESA
University of Cape Town
9 November 2004

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