ISSN 2042-9126 [Online]

The importance of language

Innocent Maja

The current multidisciplinary language discourse in law, politics, sociology, anthropology and linguistic on the importance of language reveals that language is important in at least six ways.

Firstly, language is a medium of communication, mirrors one’s identity and is an integral part of culture. Ngugi wa Thiongo referred to language as the soul of culture.[1] Put differently a person’s language is a vehicle of their particular culture. Mumpande contends cogently that “This is clearly shown in proverbs and riddles. The former, for example, have dual meanings: a literal meaning and a metaphoric or cultural significance. When literally translated into another language, a proverb frequently loses its meaning and flavour”[2].  He further graphically argues that ‘a community without a language is like a person without a soul.’

Makoni and Trudell made a finding that in sub-Saharan Africa, certainly, language functions as one of the most obvious markers of culture[3]. In the same vein, Webb and Kembo-Sure further note that in Africa, ‘people are often identified culturally primarily (and even solely) on the basis of the language they speak’[4]. For example the tonga, ndebele and shona in Zimbabwe and the Xhosa and Zulu in South Africa. Again, Serpell notes that the Zambian languages are intimately bound up with many of the society’s traditional practices, and enshrine in multiplex and subtle ways the epistemological foundations of indigenous moral values[5]. Makoni and Trudell therefore correctly argue that in this sense, linguistic diversity becomes symbolic of cultural diversity, and the maintenance or revitalization of language signals ongoing or renewed validity of the culture associated with that language[6]. Hence in this discourse linguistic diversity becomes symbolic of cultural diversity, and the maintenance or revitalization of language signals ongoing or renewed validity of the culture associated with that language.

Secondly, language is a means of expression and allows a person to participate in community activities. It can be used as a medium of fostering a democratic culture. In this sense, language policy plays a vital role in the process of democratic transition.[7] The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights convincingly succinctly captured the first and second points when it argued that

“Language is an integral part of the structure of culture; it in fact constitutes its pillar and means of expression par excellence. Its usage enriches the individual and enables him to take an active part in the community and its activities. To deprive a man of such participation amounts to depriving him of his identity.”[8]

Thirdly, languages are also valuable as collective human accomplishments and on-going manifestations of human creativity and originality. This is buttressed by UNESCO’s argument for language preservation that

The world’s languages represent an extraordinary wealth of human creativity.

They contain and express the total ‘pool of ideas’ nurtured over time through

heritage, local traditions and customs communicated through local languages[9]

Fourthly, language can also be a source of power, social mobility and opportunities. Williams and Snipper convincingly argue that in some quarters, language is a form of power[10]. The linguistic situation of a country’s society usually reflects its power structure, as language is an effective instrument of societal control. Most African states are characterised by Makoni and Trudell’s averment that ‘it is undeniably true that communities of speakers of smaller languages tend also to be the less politically empowered communities’[11]. May contends that ‘Language loss is not only, perhaps not even primarily, a linguistic issue – it has much more to do with power, prejudice, (unequal) competition and, in many cases, overt discrimination and subordination… Language death seldom occurs in communities of wealth and privilege, but rather to the dispossessed and disempowered’[12]. This normally leads to situations where majority or minority communities within African states become vociferous in support of their own identity and desire to ensure that their language, customs and traditions are not lost. In this regard, language becomes an almost inevitable point of contention between communities.

Fifth, linguistic loss is sometimes seen as a symbol of a more general crisis of biodiversity, especially indigenous languages that are seen as containing within them a wealth of ecological information that will be lost as the language is lost. This ecolinguistic school of thought regards saving endangered languages as an important part of the larger challenge of preserving biodiversity. According to Keebe ‘the loss of a language is the permanent, irrevocable loss of a certain vision of the world, comparable to the loss of an animal or a plant’[13]. Nettle and Romaine buttress this argument by emphasizing that ‘Losing a language, irrespective of the number of speakers of that language, deprives humanity of a part of our universal human heritage insofar as the language embodies a unique worldview and knowledge of local ecosystems’[14].

The biodiversity analogy has engendered the use of metaphors such as language survival, and death[15] and even more emotively, killer languages and linguistic genocide. Makoni and Trudell argue convincingly that this terminology highlights an ethical judgement that language loss is morally wrong, regardless of the particular conditions of its social uses, and that linguistic diversity is inherently good[16].

Sixth, language has served both as a reason (or pretext) for brutal conflict, and as a touchstone of tolerance. Language can serve, in all spheres of social life, to bring people together or to divide them. Language rights can serve to unite societies, whereas violations of language rights can trigger and inflame conflict. There is, therefore, every reason to clarify the position of language rights in various African states and in international human rights law, and to analyse the experience of the management of multilingualism in diverse societies. This dissertation becomes useful in this regard.

[1] 1986 Decolonizing the mind, the politics of language in African literature, Nairobi: Heinemann.

[2] Isaac Mumpande; Silent Voices: Indigenous languages in Zimbabwe, page 1.

[3] In the article Complementary and conflicting discourses of linguistic diversity: Implications for Language Planning in Per Linguam 2006 22(2): 14-28 at page 21.

[4] 2000. African voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[5] Serpell, R. 1993 The significance of schooling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[6] Note 13 above

[7] Grin F and Daftary F 2003 – Nation Building, Ethnicity and Language Politics in Transition Countries – Budapest: Open Society Institute, LGI.

[8] Malawi African Association and Others v Mauritania (2000) AHRLR 149.

[9] http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php accessed on 18 May 2007.

[10] Literacy and Bilingualism, London: Longman 1990.

[11] Note 13 above

[12] Note 3 above at page 368

[13] Keebe, D. 2003. Language policy and linguistic theory. In J Marais and M Morris (eds), Languages in a globalising world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press page 47-58

[14] Note 4 above

[15] Crystal, DAVID. 2000. Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[16] Note 13 above