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date: 23 February 2017

Multilingualism in Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

The pervasiveness of multilingualism throughout the African continent has led it to be viewed as Africa’s “lingua franca.” Sociolinguistic research on this topic has concentrated mostly on urbanized areas where, as a norm, individual language repertoires are dominated by the interplay between European ex-colonial languages, African lingua francas, and local languages, and where language ideologies emphasize the ordering of languages in a hierarchy that is tied to social status. Similar situations are also found also in rural areas of Africa. However, recent research suggests that the dynamics of multilingualism in some rural regions, in particular those characterized by high linguistic diversity, can be of quite different character than urban ones and that the methods required to study them are distinct from those that have been used to examine urban domains.

In particular, case studies drawn from rural areas of West and Central Africa document the presence of individuals possessing linguistic repertoires that are primarily oriented around local languages, ideologies, and practices that do not clearly fit with what is known from urban environments. One feature that is shared by all of the available case studies is the relatively negligible role played by prestige and prestige-related notions in the local systems of language valorization. What has been observed, instead, suggests that motivations to learn different local languages, and to use them in interaction, stem from ideologies in which language is the primary means for representing one’s relationship with land or membership in a given village community or kin group, rather than serving to construct traits associated with essentialist identities. Further features of these language ideologies—and their ramifications—are still being researched, but they are already revealing hitherto unnoticed systems of indexicality, indicating that they are likely to lead to important theoretical refinements for the sociolinguistic investigation of language and identity.

The most important theme that emerges from the existing literature is the extent to which rural multilingualism is linked to the specific dynamics holding among communities that are near to each other rather than being a reflection of a more general, externally imposed value system. While this result makes it difficult to characterize rural multilingualism as a single, coherent phenomenon, it does point to the need for a shared toolkit of research strategies, for exploring and analyzing it in more detail. In particular, ethnographic methods are required to ascertain the major local social meanings that language choice both reflects and constructs; micro-ethnographic research is additionally important as a means to focus on how individual repertoires are tied to specific life histories rather than assuming that groupings that are salient to the outside researcher (e.g., villages or speech communities) are the relevant units of analysis.

These diverse local patterns, however, do often align with certain broad, persistent cultural features of Sub-Saharan Africa that interact with language choice. This includes, for instance, a common linkage of language, secrecy, and beliefs in the supernatural, which likely influences not only multilingual practices but also the use of language-like codes such as special registers. Such cultural features can also be seen to structure aspects of language use in urban domains, indicating that a full understanding of African multilingualism requires careful consideration of contexts like linguistically diverse rural areas that maximize opportunities for observing the kinds of language dynamics that were mostly likely to have characterized the continent before the beginning of colonialism.