BY OLUKAYODE OYELEYE
AFRICA’S QUEST FOR a common language is good and desirable. But would it be appropriate to say that this is easier said than done? Here are some perspectives for reflection. How is China able to maintain Mandarin as an official language when it is spoken by 730 million of the country’s 1.4 billion people? What about Hindi, the world’s fourth most spoken language and one of India’s official languages - spoken by 450 million native speakers and a further 120 million as a second language in a population 1.4 billion people? This is apart from the fact that it is spoken as one of the many languages of the subcontinent, in addition to its significant use in communities in South Africa, Mauritius, Uganda, Yemen and Bangladesh. Spanish, the main language of Spain with a population of 47.5 million, is spoken by an estimated total of 593 million people, 493 of whom are native speakers, mostly in North America – especially in Mexico – and in the countries of Central and South America. . It is also a major language in Belize, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, Spanish coexists with English as official languages, although Spanish is the primary language. Also, although Spanish is not an official language in the United States, it is nevertheless widely spoken. Such are the diffusion and influences of these great languages.
Globally, the Arabic language is spoken by 422 million people, including native and non-native speakers in the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora, making it one of the top five most spoken languages in the world. world. The English language is different. In a world of about 7.8 billion people, 1.35 billion people would speak English, of which about 350 million speak English as their first language. Africa’s population of 237 million people use the English language either as native speakers or as non-native speakers. Of this figure, Nigeria alone is credited with a figure of 111 million people who use some form of English. How languages become widely spoken should be mentioned in the context of our topic. But what is commonly observed is that countries speaking the same language tend to have a lot of other things in common. Considering geopolitics and geoeconomics, are there commonalities between the member countries of MERCOSUR and those of ECOWAS, EAC or SADC with regard to the languages used by the member countries? For clarity, the member countries of the MERCOSUR regional political and economic bloc are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela in Latin America, although Venezuela was suspended indefinitely in 2016. ECOWAS , EAC and SADC are just three of the eight regional economic blocs in Africa. .
There is an evolutionary process of spreading widely used languages. It is never an overnight development. Historically, the spread of most languages has been the result of or associated with adventures, military conquests, colonialism, trades, travel and tourism, education and religions. We will not go into the details of these here, but will mention some contemporary examples in relation to the subject. With the exception of Saddam Hussein’s failed annexation attempts in Kuwait some three decades ago, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine since February is the most recent attempt to expand the language’s territorial influence by military means. Around the same time, 40 years ago, in early April, the surprise invasion of the Falkland Islands – a British Overseas Territory – by Argentine forces led to a war with the British military. The attempt to bring the Falkland Islands – called Las Malvinas in Argentina – under the control of Buenos Aires through a military invasion resulted in the deaths of 649 Argentines, 255 British servicemen and three civilian women in addition to wasted military equipment, including ships and aircraft, including helicopters. Could it be said that the military approach to territorial expansion and language influence can no longer prove as powerful and effective as it once was? Totalitarian regimes now seem to reinforce and expand their spheres of influence through hard-line relationships and muscle flexing. How to classify the recent forced annexation of Hong Kong by China? Or the asserted will of the latter to control Taiwan, with the threat of a possible recourse to military power?
Religions have played a historical role in the spread of languages, as can be found in many parts of the world today. Islam is now prevalent in all Arabic-speaking states as the dominant religion. In many states, Arabic has become the official language of governance and statecraft. Their diplomatic ties with each other are also notable, no matter what part of the world they are in. Western Europe, especially Germany, Britain, Ireland, Spain, and France contributed significantly to the spread of Christianity in what is today’s New World. The so-called discoveries of America, Africa, New Zealand and Australia were part of the process. With British territorial expansion came the spread of Protestantism. The Spanish language has a historical association with Catholicism. The Irish role in its propagation was also notable. Latin America has more than 425 million Catholics, nearly 40% of the total Catholic population of the world. Since these countries are not under the influence of Italy in their day-to-day secular activities, especially since they speak mainly Spanish, the influence of Old Latin or Modern Italian on them is infinitely small. Today, the Roman Catholic Church has a Latin American pope for the first time in its history. Over time, the use of the Italian language and its Latin precursor seems to find less place as a religious language among Catholics, not only in Latin America, but elsewhere, including in Africa.
The colonial influence had material effects on many former French colonies, and the effects are still felt to this day. In the same way that the British protected the Falkland Islands 12,985 kilometers or 8,068 miles away, the French still keep a close eye on small, remote Caribbean islands, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique. New Caledonia in the South West Pacific – east of Australia and about 17,000 km from France – also remains French territory. Education has been a force in the spread of languages through the ages. Ancient civilizations expanded their influence and reach through education. The Great Wall of China did not only depend on forced labor. It was a creation of education. We understood that many mathematical concepts used today were developed by Arab scholars at the height of the influence of Arab education. Today’s very different world is largely shaped by modern English as a product of a mixture of many other languages as the world becomes more sophisticated and territories of influence extend. Instruction and teaching in most of the world’s top universities is conducted in English, which is significant. Many ideas developed and disseminated in English in educational institutions take time to be translated into other major languages. In many cases, certain essential facts lose their meaning even if the underlying assumptions remain intact in the process of interpretation. More non-English speakers attend major English-speaking universities for graduate and postgraduate degrees than English-speakers attend non-English-speaking universities. In essence, the influence of English spreads more in non-English speaking areas due to education.
Commerce is another among the influencers of language dissemination or those who depend on language for dissemination. Over the centuries, trade and travel have followed and reinforced each other. Globalization – a term that has recently gained popularity – has accompanied mankind since the beginning of recorded history. In a more restricted sense, following the “discovery” of Africa, the first instinct of the invaders was trade. With no rules to restrict their operations, they began to trade in human beings in what historians have rightly called the slave trade. Africans taken to North America, especially the United States, had to give up their native language for that of slave traders and masters. Thus, the descendants of the original traded slaves grew up to know only the English language. In South and Central America, Spanish has become the operational language except in Brazil where Portuguese is the official language. In any case, the descendants of merchant slaves must use these national languages. In Brazil, descendants of slaves who declare themselves black or mestizo now represent 50.7% in Brazil, according to the 2000 census. With this, Afro-Brazilians became the official majority for the first time. Meanwhile, these Afro-Brazilians would still retain vestiges of their traditional African languages, particularly Yoruba, albeit in significantly altered forms based on time and interactions with the official Portuguese language.
The successful adoption of a language across Africa will depend on many factors, some of which have been historically discussed here. Their influences can be more or less concrete. For commerce in particular, a common language will be an asset, a necessity and a reward. But these also depend on many other factors and the strength of their relevance. Given today’s current realities and circumstances, commerce may not be as easy to use to spread a language as it has been in history. The reverse is also true: a language may or may not be of great help in boosting commerce, depending on how it is interpreted. Here is an opportunity if only those involved are willing to seize it and use it. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could launch a market development strategy with official language linked to business activities, and with specific incentives to drive interest, participation and adoption. But this need not be designed as rigid measures that could backfire and produce the opposite of the intended consequences. On the contrary, it could be likely to stimulate competition and participation among and between stakeholders, with tangible rewards attached to the top performers in the different industries, namely: maritime, aeronautics, manufacturing, ICT, health and logistics. Africa obviously needs to develop its local markets and increase the level of involvement of Africans. With involvement comes interactions. Local strategies can push both ideas in the same direction: commerce and language spreading and becoming more influential. This will lead us to the next issue – the communication – which will be the subject of another edition.