The irony is in the British Empire, it was primarily missionaries who did the initial work of alphabetizing African languages and reducing them to their written form. Even more perplexing was the British government's attitude towards African vernaculars. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies set up an Advisory Committee which released a report in 1925 recommending the use of both vernaculars and English in primary education. In 1943, the Memorandum on Language in African School Education, again, recommended the policy of promoting vernaculars in primary education. By 1950, the Empire had 10 vernacular literature bureaux for production of teaching and reading materials in native languages while 91 languages were in use in the Empire's schools in Africa. Belgium's approach was similar in that primary education was in the vernacular until the last two years. In time, the Belgians intensified efforts in the development of vernaculars such that by 1951, it was reported to UNESCO that there were grammars and dictionaries for 21 languages in the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi territories. But Britain and Belgium were still advancing colonial policies of separate development and imposing economic and knowledge systems which undermined local languages while positioning European languages as absolute necessities for social mobility. It was a big scam! The missionaries who had a keen interest in the literacy of local people also had vested evangelical interests. Thus Jack Berry and Thomas Sebeok conclude that British and Belgian interests in local languages "seem to have had a paternalistic flavour". In fact, Robert Phillipson says, "Literacy in the local language was merely a stepping stone towards literacy in the dominant language, English, for the few who succeeded in climbing the educational ladder."
The French and the Portuguese, on the other hand, did not even pretend to care about vernacular languages. Founder of the Alliance Francais, Pierre Foncin, once said the mission was, "...to attach the colonies to the Metropole by a very solid psychological bond, against the day when their progressive emancipation ends in a form of federation, as is probable...that they be, and they remain, French in language, thought and spirit."
In the end, the British, the Belgians, the French and the Portuguese all achieved the same goal: establishing their languages as dominant and attributing them "civilizing properties". After independence, the legacy was maintained. Armed with language, a weapon that attacks the very soul and consciousness of communities, the erstwhile imperial powers have found it easy to carry out their neo-colonial agenda despite superficially retreating from effective political control. As for the Africans, Ali Mazrui said those who rose in post-colonial Africa "owed a good deal of their success to the gift of the gab in the imperial language".
Understanding Linguistic Imperialism
Linguistic Imperialism was defined by Kofi Agyekum as, "...a linguistic situation where the indigenous people are gradually conscientised to shun their indigenous languages and adopt foreign languages because of the benefits they expect to derive from them. They are made to believe that their languages cannot be used in any transaction in education, economics, science and technology but instead a foreign language is the best."
To Gilbert Ansre, linguistic imperialism warps the minds, attitudes and aspirations of even the most noble in a society and prevents them from appreciating and realizing the full potential of their indigenous languages. Linguistic imperialism is a form of linguicism, which refers to ideologies and structures where language is the means for effecting or maintaining an unequal allocation of power and resources. Linguistic imperialism will glorify European languages as the languages of religion, civilization and the economy. The tragedy is with linguistic imperialism and linguicism, there is a general shame that comes with speaking native languages. African languages are pushed to the periphery of modern society as relics of a barbarian lifestyle. In this way, linguistic imperialism in Africa is not simply about words, tones and inflections; it is an attack on the valid existence of African cultures and ways of being. In response to these attacks, Africans have shifted their languages, a survival tactic in African economies whose languages are exclusively European even when entirely populated by Africans. Ultimately, the "best schools" which remain relevant in these economies are those which prohibit pupils from speaking local languages. Such denial of the self is consistently rewarded by good jobs and social mobility.
The Mass Killing of African Languages and Its Meaning
In Ngugi waThiong'o's school in Kenya, the native Gikuyu language could not be spoken in the vicinity of the school. Doing so attracted caning or the less violent alternative - carrying a placard with the inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. What the latter lacked in physical brutality it made up for in psychological torment. Vernaculars were not an option in formal education. Donald Molosi thus observed, "Today more and more well-meaning African parents in Africa are opting (and paying through their noses) for their children to speak African languages and not to learn African history. The African child is presently taught to be fluent exclusively in colonial languages and cultures - like French, English, and Portuguese, etc. - and to aspire to Whiteness, an indoctrination made much easier because of the dearth of African history and languages in African curricula."
In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi explained that, "Berlin in 1884 saw the division of Africa into different languages of the European powers. African countries, as colonies and even now as neo-colonies, came to be defined and to define themselves in terms of the languages of Europe: English speaking, French Speaking or Portuguese Speaking African countries... Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom."
It is in the classrooms that innumerable massacres and genocides were carried out. Africans minds have been separated from their bodies which "is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies." Local languages, which are at once communication systems and carriers of memory, have been jettisoned from the African consciousness and destroyed. WaThiong'o called these processes linguicides (genocides of language) and linguifams (famines of language designed to starve African languages to their eventual demise). The impact of killing off languages is explained in this way, "To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank." Without memories of who they are, can Africans still be regarded as truly African? As they lose their language and memory, they lose themselves. In fact, it is clear that the manner African economic systems are ordered rewards denial of the self - the more European an African is in language and manner, the more his chances of success even in his homeland. Unsurprisingly, Africa is on UNESCO's endangered languages radar with the warning: 10% of Africa's more than 2000 languages will be lost in the next 100 years if no deliberate action is taken to save them.
The parting shot can only be Donald Molosi's question, "Why are we Africans deliberately creating an artificial language barrier between children and their grandparents, thus trapping the interaction between the two generations exclusively in a colonial language, a foreign tongue that fails to capture our African historical, linguistic, and spiritual complexities?"