Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus

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Language ideologies and the politics of language in post-colonial Africa

H. Ekkehard Wolff


Africa is highly ideologised in terms of two antagonistic positions. Facing two extreme ideological positions, namely what one might call ‘19th century European nation state-ideology’ vs ‘20th/21st century African Renaissance-ideology’, language planners and decision-makers in Africa are caught in a complex dilemma. The paper begins by sketching out salient differences between the two positions: (1) Ideologies based on European historical-cultural experience, which gave rise to a particular ‘Western’ mind-set; this mind-set is built on convictions regarding European exceptionalism and on notions linked to linguistically and culturally homogenous nations. (2) Ideologies informed by anti-colonialist struggle and anti-imperialist philosophy which, further, rest on the recognition of sociolinguistic realities in Africa that are different from ‘the West’, i.e. being characterised by extreme ethnolinguistic plurality and diversity. While the first position continues to have considerable impact on academic and political discourse in terms of prevailing Eurocentric perspective and attitudes infested by Orientalism, the second is rooted in idealistic romanticism relating to notions of Universal Human Linguistic Rights and of African Identity and Personality. Political strategies embedded in any of these apparently mutually exclusive ideological positions have been and still are widely discussed in academic and political circles across Africa. A third position and the one adhered to in this presentation, is that of bridging this ideological divide by advocating multilingual policies for Africa, which would combine indigenous languages of local and regional relevance with imported languages of global reach towards the strategic goal of mother tongue-based multilingualism (MTBML). Interestingly, the ongoing highly controversial debate in Africa tends to overlook the fact that MTBML is exactly the ‘language(s)-in-education policy’ that most so-called developed countries, including the former colonial powers of Europe, have long since installed to best serve their own political interests and economic progress. Therefore, it remains somewhat paradoxical that African postcolonial governments copy from European models those features that are incompatible with sociolinguistic facts on the ground, like monolingual policies in the face of extensive multilingualism, but do not copy features that would be beneficial in Africa as well, like operating professional foreign language teaching and learning through a familiar medium of instruction.

Key words: Applied African Sociolinguistics, language ideologies, language policies and politics, linguistic and cultural imperialism, multilingualism and polyglossia
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