Language that divides and conquers

‘Competition between languages’ is currently being demonstrated in Cameroon. Unusually, tensions between languages have here hit world-news-status. The reason – two giants are in competition. French and English are both European languages with global aspirations. When they clash, sparks can fly.

‘Competition between languages’ tends to be invisible. It tends to be invisible in Africa, because languages in competition with European languages are much weaker. They are simply forced to give way. Nevertheless, language battles can bring disenfranchisement.

Being played out in Cameroon is a struggle between Francophone and Anglophone. It is the ancient struggle across the English channel that continues to be played out, rather unfairly one thinks, on other people’s turf. As recently was Syria seen as between Russia and the West, now Cameroon has become a proxy battlefield.

Lessons to be learned – when African countries are made dependent on languages that are not theirs, they become trapped in and easily engulfed in battles that are not theirs. The current situation in Cameroon is just an example. Encouraging poor countries to become dependent on European languages is a justice issue.

Rwanda represents a parallel situation, but in reverse. ( )  The sharpness of the issue in Cameroon seems to be that, exceptionally, English, perhaps the most lucrative language the world has ever known, is being forced into a retreat.

Contemporary language-imperialism, if it can be called that, is enabled by contemporary technology. Global English and French are built on TV, internet, printing press, etc. In biblical times, such was not a practical possibility.

It was not colonial policy to transfer English to Africa. It happened through pressure from indigenous people (as also in India). See: Brutt-Griffler, Janina, 2002. World English: a study of its development. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. This has created a problematic that has the potential to continue bringing and perpetuating injustices.

What lies at the root of the above ‘problem’? Perhaps it is the reluctance of the contemporary (17th century and beyond?) missionary force to ‘die’ to the people they are serving. Contemporary missionaries from the powerful West go to serve with a foot securely remaining in their prosperous home. Benefits from the West coming through them are sufficient to motivate majority world citizens to prioritise outside tongues, no matter how negative are the long-term implications of doing so.

Perhaps the only solution this late in the day, is to create a disconnect between missionary mother-tongue and majority world prosperity. That is; for missionaries and development workers not to be sharing resources from ‘back home’, especially not using European languages.

By Jim Harries,

Click here for more information on Jim Harries and the work he is involved in.

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