May 23, 2014

Colonial influence lingers in West Africa's official languages

French professor says minority speaking English and French use language to maintain power
Ozouf Amedegnato argues French and English should be dropped as official languages throughout sub-Saharan West Africa in favour of local African languages.

Ozouf Amedegnato argues local languages should be official languages in sub-Saharan West Africa.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When University of Calgary French professor Ozouf Amedegnato is invited to speak at conferences, the audience expects an unabashed advocate for established languages like English and French, with their wide international acceptance.

But Amedegnato was born in Togo — and he argues that the official-language-status of French and English throughout sub-Saharan West Africa should be dropped in favour of local African languages that are more commonly spoken in all countries there.

“In West Africa, the average number of people with exposure to colonial languages (English and French) is 30 per cent,” says Amedegnato, who grew up speaking French, Ewe (the predominant language in Togo) and Kabiye — and later learned English, German and Russian.

However, only 15 per cent of the West African populations fluently speak colonial languages — and this elite uses language to wield and maintain power, he says.

Amedegnato argues that switching to widely spoken African languages would bring enormous benefits to the continent. He says schooling children in their maternal language is not only a simple question of basic human rights — research studies have shown it improves students’ academic results and boosts their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Amedegnato says adopting African languages as official in West African countries would increase literacy rates within the general population, promote democracy and reduce corruption due to increased oversight and public participation in civil life.

Noting that some diseases exist in Africa that have been eradicated throughout the rest of the world, he says talking to people about disease prevention in their first language would also have a positive impact on public health and, ultimately, the economy.

His message has not been well-received everywhere. In France, where he has even been accused of being a Francophobe working to upset the status quo. “They get very angry. People in France think it’s a privilege to speak French,” says Amedegnato, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics from Montpellier University.

“In France, I’d be ostracized judging by the reactions I get. It’s wonderful to be in Western Canada writing about this because of the incredible amount of freedom.”

He is currently writing a book in French, Rethinking Language Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, to be published by the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux in 2015 to deliver his message in that language.

Amedegnato notes that in 13 West African countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo — the official language is English or French even though the colonial languages are not those spoken by the greatest number of people. In Cape Verde and in Guinea Bissau, another colonial language, Portuguese is the official language — but it is also not the most common spoken tongue in those countries.