Keeping languages alive

“The endurance of a language, like many aspects of culture, depends on the youth.”

I came across the organization called Cultures of Resistance as I was doing research/preparing for Africa Week (through African Student Union & Amnesty International). Cultures of resistance consist of people who find creative ways to oppose conflict and promote peace, justice and sustainability. One of their campaigns is a fight to save endangered languages and there are several groups who advocate for this preservation. National Geographic even has a whole page dedicated to “documenting the planet’s endangered languages.”

Language is more than just something spoken or written. It is the medium of culture–how we identify with other people, our shared history, and (hopefully) a way to preserve traditions. Clearly, this ties into my project where I argue that English is overpowering other languages and influencing more than just vocal interactions, but culture as well. In Kenya alone, there are over 60 mother tongues of various ethnic groups and over 100 in Tanzania, and that’s not even counting the different dialects ( This might be kind of far-fetched and not politically correct to say (but I’m going to anyway)…What if we thought of the loss of language as a form of genocide? I know, the “g” word isn’t lightly tossed around but hear me out–try to see where I’m coming from in this construction of my own ideology pertaining to loss of language. Directly, no one is physically dying or being mass exterminated by a dominant powerful regime. Indirectly, I would argue, the wiping out of a language wipes out a culture, wipes out traditions, and ultimately wipes out a population. Case in point: the Hadzabe in Tanzania, one of the few hunting-gathering groups left. Their language, Hadza, is a clicking language and because of their decreased size, it is on the verge of becoming extinct. Extinct is another funny word. When we think of things become extinct, we think of species, like dinosaurs. When a language becomes extinct, so does the traditions and cultural aspects that go along with it. So, what about the Hadza? As hunter-gatherers, they don’t stay in one area for very long. However, what happens when the Tanzanian government seeks to expand development projects and ultimately encroach on virtually untouched land? And what about the tourism that comes in to these area?–i.e. Dorobo Safaris, the company we used during our stay with the Hadzabe. By recognizing the existence of this dwindling group, Dorobo works to preserve their culture, and their language–a clicking language at that. Am I hopeful for the Hadzabe? I wish I could say yes, but with ideology relating to development and integration into global markets, I foresee a dim future for this traditional hunting and gathering group. Again, this is yet another reason to support my argument that English is more than just a global language; it is a hegemonic imperial language that takes no prisoners–speak English or die trying.

Now, scroll back to my opening line: “The endurance of a language, like many aspects of culture, depends on the youth.” This is it, folks. The culture of resistance I’m talking about is the youth! For traditional languages (and I’m not even considering Swahili here!) to remain intact, for traditional cultures to avoid extinction, something needs to be done. And in most cases, it relates to the youth–they are the ones who aren’t being taught or exposed to the same kinds of language learning as their parents or grandparents, because of their existence in this globalized world. Yet, how can a space be created for these youth to feel the need to hang on to their mother tongues? What’s in it for them. Enter into the conversation CAPITALISM. And I can’t talk about capitalism without talking about power. Indeed, it is this interpellation of the base and superstructure whereby the focus is on the individual, and individual success that is promoted by the economic system of capitalism. This cycle seems inescapable. No one in the market place speaks Luo, or Kimeru, or Gikuyu, so why should Kenyan youth learn the language of their ancestors? Because of this ideology, languages die out. Now, it’s almost as if there’s a competition between which language will assume complete power and influence–English or Swahili. And off of that, what kinds of cultural flows will be the result?

What kinds of implications does complete abandonment have? It’s a bit scary to think about if you ask me…

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