From Cape Times, 9 February 2005
Globalisation threatens world's indigenous languages--32% of them African

February 9, 2005

By Terry Leonard

Maputo: Along a boulevard lined with flowering acacias, young people in designer clothes and high-heels chatter on the sidewalk struggling to be heard over the driving Latin rhythms spilling from a nightclub.

Maputo's vibrant nightlife lets people forget it is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Here you can eat Italian, dance like a Brazilian and flirt in Portuguese.

One thing that's in ever shorter supply and perhaps in even less demand: Mozambique's own indigenous languages - the storehouse for the accumulated knowledge of generations. "Sons no longer speak the language of their fathers... our culture is dying," laments Paulo Chihale, director of a project that seeks to train Mozambican youths in traditional crafts.

While Mozambique has 23 native languages, the only official one is Portuguese - a hand-me-down tongue from colonial times that at once unifies a linguistically diverse country and undermines the African traditions that help make it unique.

The United Nations estimates half of the world's estimated 6 000 languages will disappear in less than a century. Roughly a third of those are spoken in Africa and about 200 already have less than 500 speakers. A recent UN Conference on Trade and Development report on protecting traditional knowledge argues that beyond a devastating impact on culture, the death of a language wipes out centuries of know-how in preserving ecosystems - leading to grave consequences for biodiversity.

Villagers in Indonesia's Kayan Mentarang national park, for example, have for centuries practised a system of forest management called Tanah Ulen or "Forbidden land". On a rotating basis, elders declare parcels of the forest protected, prohibiting hunting and gathering.

In Maputo, Chihale looks up from his cluttered desk at MozArte, a UN- and government-funded project that seeks to teach youths to earn a living through traditional crafts."Our culture has a rich oral tradition, oral history, stories told from one generation to another. But it is an oral literature our kids will never hear," said Chihale.

Already, 96% of the languages spoken on Earth are spoken by just 4% of the population. Experts estimate half the people in the world now use in their daily life one of the eight most widespread languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French. Experts say 234 African languages have already disappeared and that 32% of the endangered languages on Earth are African.

Mozambican linguist Rafael Shambela says that the pressures from globalisation are often too great to resist. To conserve native languages and culture, he argues, societies must ascribe to them an inherent value.

On a small campus along a dirt road south of Maputo, Shambela has joined a government effort to write textbooks and curriculums that will allow public school students to learn in 16 of the country's 23 languages. "A language is a culture," said Shambela, who works for Mozambique's National Institute for the Development of Education. "It contains the history of a people and all the knowledge they have passed down for generations."


It took 12 years for Mozambicans to kick out Portuguese colonialists. But at independence in 1975, they kept the language because it was the only one known well enough by everyone to unify the country. The trade-off: the rites and rhythms of traditional life have been eroded. "From dating to mourning, the rules are becoming less clear," said Shambela.


Examples from other nations bode badly for Mozambique's efforts to preserve its languages. India has 25 official languages and South Africa 11. Despite government conservation programmes, language in those countries is rapidly become homogenised, said Meenal Shrivastava, a professor and expert on globalisation at Wits University in Johannesburg.