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Officially Monolingual Countries with Many Actual Bilinguals

In contrast, there are officially monolingual countries which are in fact highly multilingual. In Ghana, for example, there are 79 different languages, and in Nigeria some five hundred. But English is the sole official language of both countries. In Niger, 21 languages are spoken, and in Senegal, 37 languages. But French is the only official language of these countries. In Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, Portuguese is the sole medium of government- controlled national communication, and the 20 or so African languages of Mozambique do not play any role in government and education. Upon independence, many post-colonial countries chose the former colonial language to facilitate the cultural and linguistic unity of the newborn nation without favoring any one ethnic group. Since English, French, and Portuguese were no one’s mother tongue, they could serve as neutral languages for administrative purposes.

But the colonial languages are not widely used by the people of these countries. In fact, less than 10% of people in lusophone Africa are able to function through Portuguese, and between 5% and 20% of those in anglophone Africa can communicate in English (Kamwangamalu, 2006). Although French is the official language in Senegal, Wolof, a lingua franca in West Africa, is spoken more extensively by the general population. French is learned and used only by a small minority. In Sierra Leone, Krio is widely used as a lingua franca in trade and social interactions among different ethnic groups, but English is the country’s official language. If so few people can actually understand and use the colonial languages, why were they chosen over African languages that are more widely spoken?

Kamwangamalu (2006) points out that in Southern Africa, there are two types of bilinguals: elite bilinguals and natural bilinguals. Elite bilinguals are individuals who, in addition to their mother tongue, are highly educated in a foreign language (i.e., the colonial language). Since not everyone can afford the cost of an education in Southern Africa, elite bilinguals constitute a minority social class made up of government officials, academics, and those in higher positions in business or the civil service. In contrast, natural bilinguals are those who are fluent in two or more indigenous languages and use them as a means of communication in everyday life. In addition to their mother tongue, they acquire the other languages as a result of interethnic marriages or exposure to communities that speak different languages. While natural bilinguals constitute the majority of Southern Africa’s population, it is the elite bilinguals who have the political clout.

Kamwangamalu (2006: 729) observes that the ruling elite have defended the inherited colonial policies, which promote former colonial languages at the expense of the indigenous African languages, for reasons such as “elitism and vested interests, ethnolinguistic rivalries among language groups, financial constraints, and the lack of political will.” The colonial languages are status symbols in these countries and clearly the High varieties in a diglossic relationship with the African indigenous languages (the Low varieties). Since opportunity to learn the colonial language is available only to a small minority, it acts as a barrier between the political elite and the masses. The political elite is naturally interested in insisting on the use of the colonial language so it can maintain its hold on political affairs.

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