Some African languages are in danger of extinction

african school 028a

Students in Africa

The 21st of February was observed as International Mother Language Day. The day was proclaimed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999 to promote all the languages of the world. UNESCO also publishes the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger to raise awareness about the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a linguist based in Gaborone, Botswana, told me that some of the threatened languages in Africa are spoken by the indigenous San people who are sometimes referred to by the derogatory term of “Bushmen.” Derrick Mbatha reports.

BRENZINGER: Many of those San people still retain their so-called clique languages. So they have the clique sounds. That’s part, actually, of my own research, but there are some highly threatened. There is one which is called “Ncu!”

MBATHA: “Ncu!”

BRENZINGER: “Ncu!” yeah and there are only seven speakers left of this language. So it’s actually not spoken anymore in daily communication because these seven people don’t live together. Now some linguists are trying to document this language before the speakers die and with them the language then also becomes extinct.

MBATHA: Where do these seven speakers of “Ncu!” live?

BRENZINGER: This is now in the Upington area of South Africa.

MBATHA: Talking about South Africa, as you are probably aware, all major languages there are regarded as official languages. Does this help in preserving linguistic diversity?

BRENZINGER: That’s a very important move. To upgrade African languages is very important because also among African people, many of them disregard their own cultural heritage and think that African languages are useless. But, in fact, when you see that all this traditional knowledge in which is enshrined the moral and cultural values which are only possible to be transmitted in their own languages, it’s not a matter only of economics and of money but is also identity and cultural value. If you have this official recognition and the official support it hopefully helps also to change the attitudes of the speakers to have a more positive stand toward those own languages.

MBATHA: Given the dominance of certain media, I am thinking in particular of television and radio and the English language itself, what can be done to preserve African languages?

BRENZINGER: I think printed media is far more complicated but the radio, which is still in rural Africa the most important media all over Africa, I would say, it has the most impact on daily lives and also on informing people and discussing issues. When you look at the radio programmes in African states you see that in most states you have a wide variety of African languages being used. There are many programmes in African languages broadcasting news, having cultural issues discussed and so on. So I think radio is a big chance to promote language diversity to promote language diversity and also to spread being proud of one’s own past.

MBATHA: What are some of the challenges in efforts to preserve linguistic diversity?

BRENZINGER: The entire issue of fostering language diversity and fostering language use in one’s own mother tongues is rather complex. Languages are threatened in very very different ways and very different contexts. In Africa it’s more changing attitudes towards the language and then the languages are still there and spoken and one needs to raise awareness among their community that’s is a cultural treasure.

MBATHA: That was Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a linguist based in Gaborone, Botswana, ending this edition of UN and Africa. I am Derrick Mbatha.

Duration: 2’56″

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