During the last 20 days, I’ve been traveling in Europe, and, among many places, I visited a small East European country called Lithuania.
Lithuania is 36 times smaller in size than Congo (DRC) and 14 times smaller than Nigeria. The population is only three million, 60 times smaller than the Nigerian population, only 7% of the Lagos population.
They speak, write and teach in their own language: Lithuanian. From primary school to university, education is done in their mother language. They train over 2000 medical doctors every year at their universities, in their Lithuanian language. They have built satellites and host some of the world leading laser research and development centers. It’s also an IT-strong country, and a strong food industry.
Any major book in the world is translated in less than three months into their language. Their libraries and bookstores are exclusively in Lithuanian, and each covers hundreds of meters of books.
They have no excuse of globalization to abandon their language. Instead, they have a highly-respected Lithuanian language academy which domesticates all alien words before they’d go mainstream.
The country has no natural resources, except good land, water, and one of the most committed and responsive leaderships in Europe.
If they can… why can’t we?
In Nigeria, there are 36 million Hausa people, over 10 times the Lithuanians, but they have found all the good reasons to abandon their language and speak with pride and glamour an alien language called English. They won’t educate their kids in their mother language, instead, they would be proud if they spoke Oxford English.
The Yoruba are 36 million, more then 10 times the Lithuanians, but they have found all the good reasons to abandon their language and speak with pride and glamour an alien language called English. They won’t educate their kids in their mother language, instead, they are proud if they speak Stanford English.
The Igbo are 30 million, again more then 10 times the Lithuanians, but they have found all good reasons to abandon their language and speak with pride and glamour an alien language called English. They won’t educate their kids in their mother language, instead, they would be proud if they spoke Cambridge English.
One might respond: “Lithuania is a country with one language, while Nigeria is multilingual. It’s not possible for the Hausa, the Yoruba, the Igbo to educate in their own language. Nigeria would explode”. Well, there are cases of multilingual states which function very well. Switzerland is 22 times smaller than Nigeria but has four official languages and a heralded direct democratic political system. Belgium is 30 times smaller than Nigeria but has three official languages and a king.
In the case of the African states, the most critical question we have to face is this: have English, French, or Portuguese won to the point to become our new mother languages in Africa?
I find it extremely difficult to convince “educated” Africans to believe in our ability to revive our languages and make them the administration and education languages of our countries. Whatever the arguments and evidences presented, most of the African elite is incapable of resisting the temporary easiness of adopting a foreign language.
Often our conversations would go as follows:
“There are XY languages in my country; without French or English, how would we communicate?” would say the African colonial elite.
We respond: The Mali empire, the Songhai empire, the Kongo kingdom, the Benin kingdom were more vast than any of our current micro-countries. In those empires and kingdoms, which lasted centuries, were much more vast, most prosperous than our current countries, the same ethnic groups existed, and did commerce and diplomacy without English or French. How was it possible?
Second, the colonial languages in Africa are very recent and still limited to a fraction of African population. How did Africans communicate between each other before the arrival of the colonizers with their language only two centuries ago?
Recently, I have spent a month and half in a village in the center-east of Togo. The village is small, with 2800 residents. Though with a small population, that village represents a true melting pot with over nine different ethnic groups living together there. How do they manage to communicate between each other? Do they use any colonial language like English or French as a uniting language?
The people in that village have selected one of our local languages to use as medium of communication. And, at the time I was there, almost everyone speaks that common language, except few newcomers.
What is funny is that our country is ready to select a colonial language to unite Africa, instead of having the courage to select one African language to do the same.
“If there is no English or French, how would a Ghanaian speak with a Nigerian or a Kenyan?”
We respond: The whole Western Europe is smaller than the Congo, but the EU Parliament has 25 official languages, and each European tribe is entitled to speak its own language in the parliament. That’s an example.
Currently, African countries trade very little with each other, and their populations are educated in only two or three colonial languages. On the contrary, Europe, which has the highest interstate trade in the world, uses 25 languages for trade and diplomacy over an area just the size of the Congo.
The same could be said about Asians. How do Asians trade between each other without adopting one unifying colonial language (keep in mind they used to be colonies, too!)?
In summary, it’s not necessary to adopt English or French to be able to do business between us. In fact, before Africa’s colonization, there was more commerce, diplomacy and trade between African nations than today!
“We live in a global village, Africans need to integrate”
We respond: Africa represents barely 3% of the world trade, but it’s the only continent which had massively abandoned its own languages for education and administration. If speaking English or French could improve our trade, Africa would be the first commercial hub in the world!
More concretely, China and the USA are the most commercially-connected countries in the world. China did not, nevertheless, change the language of its citizens’ education into English, and the US did not make Chinese mandatory in schools.
The same for France and Germany. These two countries are the biggest trade partners in the European Union. Did France adopt the German language as its education language? Nope. Did Germany make French a mandatory language in its schools? Nope.
In the 15th century, the Mali empire was the richest empire in the world, trading salt and gold worldwide. Was the Malian empire using English? Nope.
Anyone who has ever visited the southern ports of China and met African traders there would easily testify that almost none of them speak Chinese (while the well -“educated” Africans, who strongly argue in favour of the adoption of foreign languages for commerce and diplomacy, sit in their offices with air conditioning and just pontificate)!
“Our languages are not written yet and are spoken by small groups of people. It’s too late anyway”
We respond: Many of our languages are written. Those which are not could easily become such. Our languages are not “small”. There are more representatives of Igbos, Hausas, Yorubas, Bambaras, Peuhls than in any large ethnic group in Europe or Asia.
Small European countries like Lithuania, with less than three million inhabitants, administrate and educate in their own “small” languages. Lithuania still trains two thousand qualified doctors every year, and teaches laser and nanotechnology in Lithuanian language. They could have easily said: “We are small and insignificant, let’s adopt German or French,” but those people have some pride left.
Language is not neutral. If other nations could do it, it means we can do it, too.
(This post was written in English)