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Views on Africa and the linguistic challenge

Last Updated: 15 Jul 2019

Views on Africa and the linguistic challenge

On returning from the first World Congress of Francophone Researchers and Experts organized by ACAREF (Académie africaine de recherches et études francophones) at the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra, from 11 to 14 June 2019, it is natural to take a benevolent look at Africa.

First of all, this congress, which attracted nearly 250 participants, after having collected 675 proposals for participation, was not lacking in ambition.

Twenty years ago, such an event would probably have been held in Europe and could have been entitled "Human Sciences at the Bedside of Africa". But this time, this congress succeeds three other DELLA (Didactics and Teaching of Languages and Literature in Africa) symposia held in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The last had already shown the vigour of a young generation of African researchers and revealed that Africa, because of the development challenges it faces, is a field where innovative research can flourish.

The CMCF was therefore a natural extension of it and aimed to go beyond the educational and linguistic framework and to question the humanities, i.e. the whole range of humanities from the point of view of their impact on societies and their capacity to address African development issues.

As English-language research enjoys unrivalled referencing systems, it was imperative to highlight the progress of French-language research.

The awakening of Africa

Over the past twenty years, Africa has undergone a profound transformation.

Africa was the main beneficiary of the EFA (Education for All) Plan adopted at the Dakar conference in 2000 and is the first continent to be targeted by Goal 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Today, it accounts for 30% of development aid, whereas it currently represents only 17% of the world's population1, but a set of data shows that Africa has indeed entered the emerging world.

Growth (although questionable in some respects, this criterion remains unavoidable) was twice as fast from 2000 to 2017 as in the previous two decades and 72% above the world average (+4.9% against 2.84%).

This growth, despite large disparities and insufficient poverty reduction, affects almost all countries, without any need to distinguish between French-speaking and English-speaking African countries as it has been done in the past.

To get an idea of the sustainability of the process, some data must be integrated.

First, this process is based on considerable progress in the areas of health and education. Significant progress remains to be made, but the growth observed would not have been possible without the inflow of capital and the development of internal savings for which the improvement of health and education was a prerequisite and the most powerful lever. A virtuous relationship is clearly emerging between improving health status and raising the population's level of education on the one hand, and the attractiveness of economies for investment, both domestic and international, on the other. Direct investment to the African continent increased from $15 billion to $38 billion between 2000 and 2008 and to $45 billion in 2015. This growth can be explained. According to the French Council of Investors in Africa (CIAN), Africa offers the highest rate of return on investment in the world. It is interesting to note that a significant proportion of investment comes from African diasporas around the world, particularly in France. According to the World Bank, remittances from the sub-Saharan African diaspora amounted to $2.2 billion in 2001, 4.6 billion in 2008 and 10.6 billion in 2015. For North Africa and the Middle East, the corresponding figures are $1 billion, 6.7 and 6.8. These results are remarkable. However, over the period, the investment rate, between 20 and 23 per cent of GDP, remained below the global average, between 23 and 26 per cent, and is still far from East Asia and the Pacific, which is between 37 and 43 per cent, and South Asia, between 25 and 38 per cent.

Clearly, this virtuous circle only works in a state of relative political stability combined with a climate of trust that goes hand in hand with more democracy and in a favourable economic context, all conditions that are difficult to obtain and weakened by multiple threats.

The second remark concerns the content of growth. Revenues from natural resources - the ancient foundation of the African economy - accounted for barely 24% of growth over the past ten years; the rest came from other growing sectors such as finance, retail trade, agriculture, and telecommunications. Not all African countries have natural resources, yet GDP growth has accelerated almost everywhere. This means very clearly that growth responds to the needs of local markets without staying away from international markets.

This economic activity is based on very strong local entrepreneurship, and, as Sabine Patricia Moungou Mbend, Vice-Dean of the University of Yaoundé II, Barnabé Thierry Godono and Lucain Som, of the Université Aube Nouvelle, point out in their study on the economic prospects of sub-Saharan Africa, published on the OEP website, the digital economy is very present and is developing much faster than traditional sectors, while irrigating most of them. Currently, the African continent, which still accounted for only 3.85% of world GDP in 2017, is the second largest market in the world in terms of demand for information technology.

Another remarkable feature is the strong feminisation of the economy and particularly of entrepreneurship. Diaretou Gaye, Director of Strategy and Operations at the World Bank, quoted in the same study, noted in 2018: "Africa is the only region in the world where more women than men choose the path of entrepreneurship, a reality that is not sufficiently discussed". About 25% of working women are led to start their own businesses and thus contribute to about 65% of the continent's wealth. The performance of women-owned businesses is estimated to be 34 per cent higher than that of men-owned businesses.

And what drives them to the company? According to the same study, the first factor is the need to feed the family. In this respect, the case of Rwandan women is exceptional, remarkably highlighted by the program Envoyé spécial. Rwanda, the country of women - April 18, 2019 (France 2, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XN5k2MuH_Fg). "Due to the lack of men, who died by the hundreds of thousands after the 1994 genocide, Rwandan women had to rebuild the country. Today, they are in the majority in the Assembly, and hold strategic positions in both the public and private sectors.

But Africa's greatest opportunity is its youth. With 65 per cent under 25 years of age, the development potential is considerable and the United Nations predicts that Africa's population, which stood at 17 per cent of the world's population in 2017, is expected to exceed 30 per cent by 2050.

Some will raise the spectre of overpopulation, which should not be ignored, but it must be balanced by three aspects.

First, Africa as a whole has an average population of 30 inhabitants per km², which does not make it an overpopulated continent given its size (9 times less dense than India, for example).

Secondly, due to the increase in its level of education and development, Africa has entered the process of demographic transition. Thus, after a strong demographic expansion, due to the rapid decline in mortality rates induced by the improvement in health status, the fertility decline trend is almost general, despite wide variations from one country to another and a rate that some would consider insufficient.

Finally, perhaps Africa's greatest asset is the scale of the challenges it faces, health, education, ecology, economics and language, which have no equivalent in human history.

This is why the "Northern countries" cannot ignore what is happening in the South and must do everything possible to support the movement.

Language challenges

As the European Observatory for plurilingualism (and not the Observatory for European plurilingualism), we are closely monitoring educational and linguistic issues in Africa, which has resulted in the publication of three books and soon a fourth one.

Despite undeniable progress, education must remain an absolute priority at the three levels of primary, secondary and higher education. But let us stick to the linguistic aspect, whose implications, often poorly understood, are in fact considerable.

In the 19th century, European countries became, with the affirmation of modern nation-states, countries of monolingual culture. We specify "monolingual culture", because they are not really monolingual, indeed they are far from being so.

On the other hand, because of the extraordinary mosaic of African languages, plurilingualism is a dominant feature of African societies. This situation should be seen rather as an opportunity and an opportunity not to repeat what has happened in Europe, in France in particular, where the place of regional languages has been drastically reduced in the space of three to four generations. But you have to understand what really happened.

The ideological explanation is a very bad explanation and does not lead to any concrete answer. Thus, some people complain about the linguistic damage that Abbot Gregory allegedly committed during the French Revolution with his Report on the need and means to annihilate the patois and universalize the use of the French language (National Convention 1794). Whatever one thinks of this report, with the passage of time and the evolution of linguistic ideas, it is quite illusory to imagine that a parliamentary report, even taking into account the dominant ideas at the time of the French Revolution, could influence the linguistic behaviour of an essentially rural and very largely illiterate population. Other factors, much more significant and universal in scope, came into play. It should be recalled that almost a century later, the Jules Ferry laws (1881-1882) on public education had as their primary motivation to remedy the lack of education of the French population, considered as the first cause of defeat against Prussia in 1870. These laws therefore made primary education public, free and secular and then compulsory primary education from 6 to 13 years of age and with no difference between girls and boys. The first effect of the Jules Ferry laws was the acceleration of literacy from 75% of the population in the northeast quarter of the country and less than 50% in the rest of the country to over 95% everywhere on the eve of the First World War. Of course, this literacy was done in French and only in French, which was obvious at the time.

Beyond education, it is clear that other fundamental processes (industrial revolution, urbanization, media development) have been practiced to lead families to a disaffection for regional languages that became massive in the years following the Second World War.

It is this extremely powerful process that should be avoided in Africa and that is likely to happen again if appropriate policies are not implemented.

There is no question of slowing down in any way the accession of populations to the major international languages, such as French and English in Africa in particular, or depriving them of the opportunity to appropriate them. But this process cannot be done in ignorance of the mother tongues. And there are two fundamental reasons for this.

Could we imagine in the Middle Ages in Europe that Latin could be learned without using mother tongues (learning to read and write in the Middle Ages meant learning Latin)? One of the great Latin teaching manuals of the time, written around 1199, Alexandre de Villedieu's Doctrinale, explains it very simply: "If at first children have difficulty understanding well,...let their attention be supported by avoiding doctoral presentations and by teaching children in their own language". (Chaurand, Nouvelle histoire de la langue française, 1999: 125).

Using local or national languages in education is therefore a prerequisite for better learning in school and preventing early drop-outs, which are a major problem for girls and boys.

The second reason is the need to protect and promote the cultural and literary heritage of mother tongues. Several speakers at the CMCF, for example, stressed not only the literary and poetic importance of African stories but also their function as civic and social tools ofeducation. And when the OIF undertakes to encourage the translation of literature into African languages into French and other African languages, it is right.

Teaching local and national languages is therefore also a necessity, but it is a question that can be assessed in the light of two considerations.

The teaching in school of the languages spoken in the families is a condition for ensuring that the family transmission of these languages continues, without which no language can survive. However, it goes without saying that the relevance of this teaching is dependent on satisfactory linguistic and pedagogical equipment for these languages, which is far from always being the case. Teachers must also be well trained in these languages when they are not native speakers themselves, which is very problematic in material terms when there are a large number of languages coexisting in territories that are not linguistically homogeneous.

The second consideration is the choice of languages. It is clear that the national and local languages to be taught must be the languages spoken in the families. Otherwise, as Pierre Frath opportunely pointed out at the CMCF in Accra, the educational benefit to be expected is nil, or even negative, and in so doing we contribute to the eradication of the languages we claim to want to protect, on the basis of a linguistic nationalism that we denounce elsewhere.

In saying these words, we feel that we are labouring th point, because these subjects are well known to the OIF and to the African governments involved in the ELAN programme, for example.

But what we would like to stress above all is the need to change paradigm and move from the monolingual to the plurilingual paradigm.

The monolingual paradigm, which still permeates the Anglo-Saxon world and European countries, is subtractive, in the sense that one language drives out the other and that any bilingual or multilingual system is in a situation of diglossia, i.e. where the languages involved are unequal and mutually competing or even in conflict. On the contrary, the plurilingual paradigm is additive, i.e. languages are perceived as complementary. Charles V is credited with having once said that "a man who speaks four languages is worth four men", a quote with many variations and authors that can be found in various cultural contexts. But the idea is not new, and it is complemented by the idea that one only knows one's language well when one knows the languages of others, an idea that is attributed to both Goethe and Saint-Exupéry. Today, numerous studies have confirmed this and concluded that everyone benefits from a good plurilingual linguistic capital.

The major linguistic challenge currently facing Africa is to opt in people's minds and in practice for the plurilingual paradigm. African peoples are quite well equipped to meet this challenge and it is now that it must be met.

1This was already the case in the 17th century, then the African population saw its relative share decline until 1900, when it represented only 7%, only to recover since then. The African continent is the one with the fastest growing population growth today and is expected to reach 31% of the world population by 2050.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator