Cultural imperialism an enduring threat to linguistic diversity


As the world celebrates the International Mother Language Day today on the 21st of February 2013, it is important to reflect on the importance of language and understand why it matters more as a form of identity than a medium of communication.

Increasing cross border communication, trade and educational exchanges between different parts of the world have dictated that world citizens everywhere strive for competency in languages of wider communication such as English. The fate of a language is closely linked to political power dynamics. However, the purpose of this article is not to engage on a pedagogy of politics and power but on how government can promote and protect demographically weak languages through pro-active policies in order for them to survive and thrive. The interconnectedness and diversity of the world, travelling and world tourism, trade, marriage, sport and education have dictated that individuals can no longer afford to think of themselves and others in the primitive lenses of superiority and inferiority. Poor language policy and planning has imbued linguistic minorities with ingredients for self destruction. Disingenuous and disintegrative policies have condemned indigenous minority languages to the traditional cultural domain of anthology, song, theatre and rainmaking ceremonies.

The Sustainable Development in a Diverse World (SUS.DIV) Research Unit estimates that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 different languages spoken across the world today. Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of languages because of the distorted distinction between languages and dialects, language constitutes a vital cultural attribute used not only for communication but in expressing the way individuals locate themselves in relationship to others, the powers they accord to themselves and the powers they stipulate to others. A total of 516 languages are considered to be nearing extinction because they are spoken by just a few elderly people. Africa alone has 46 severely endangered languages which are in the peril of phasing out.

As the world celebrates the International Mother Language Day today on the 21st of February 2013, it is important to reflect on the importance of language and understand why it matters more as a form of identity than a medium of communication. Language is a cultural asset. It is much more than a structured organization of consonants, vowels, phonemes and syllables to formulate norms and verbs in order to convey meaning. Language is certainly much more than what is signified by words. As a political tool, language is often used to homogenize or distinguish groups of individuals in ways that serve those in control of society. The diversity of languages in the world and the different vitalities that languages command has important implications for individuals and societies at large. The disappearance and scarcity of unwritten and undocumented languages mean that humanity is losing not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. Essentially, people use language to indicate social, historical and cultural allegiances, that is, which groups they belong to and which groups they do not belong to.

It is the duty of government to come up with legislative policies that protect and preserve indigenous languages. Archaic relationships between policy and planning have however rendered many language policies ineffective. Policies that recommend the use of minority languages in education such as Kalanga, Sotho, Nambia and Venda, amongst others are usually not accompanied by sufficient safeguards to reinforce them. The marginalization of a language is the marginalization of a people. Minority communities have over the daunting years faced an enduring challenge marginalization and underdevelopment which has been characterized by a systematic relegation of minority languages to cultural domains. As such, their history is nothing other than the history of marginalization and subordination to a centralized thinking process that alienates them from the day-to-day decision making processes. While in the majority of instances this has been happening with the sad and silent approval of the native speakers of minority languages, such disintegrative language policies contribute to a linguistic genocide. This has ensured the entrenchment of inter-ethnic polarization and massively strengthened the political domination of ethno-nationalist political groups in the decision-making processes.

Well-planned and implementable language policies are needed to bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother languages and pass them on to younger generations. There is need to elevate the status of previously unrecognized or unsupported minority languages such as Kalanga, Ndau, Manyika and Shangani amongst others and extend its use to new domains. Even bilingual road signs, advertisements and other public notices can go a long way in elevating the status of minority languages. On the other hand, being a member of a minority encourages diversity as one must learn to thrive through becoming conversant in languages spoken by the majority. Culture clashes have ensured in many cases where primary school children have been taught in languages foreign to them which they cannot comprehend a feature which has contributed to poor and deteriorating education standards countrywide. The government needs to support innovations to document and allow for the official use of minority languages and for children to learn them in schools and colleges. There is need for a power balance in the linguistic market place to ensure that all citizens become engaged pro-active partners in a governing and development process.

Emmanuel Ndlovu is the Advocacy and Programmes Manager for the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association. He writes in his individual capacity. Contact him:

  • Subaru

    Great piece Emmanuel!

  • Ndzimu-unami Emmanuel Moyo

    Good one there.