Lessons from the Reformation could help spur Africa’s linguistic revolution

There’s no reason Africa shouldn’t be at the centre of global knowledge production. Shutterstock

Africa is at a tipping point. Countries across the continent are on the brink of shifting from postcolonial to global knowledge societies. A global knowledge society empowers people by increasing access to and preserving and sharing information and knowledge in all domains. Its features include freedom of expression and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.

This change, driven by digitalisation and globalisation, will nudge African countries from being consumers of knowledge to its producers. It will bring full mental decolonisation to the continent. But none of this will happen without a shift in how Africa thinks about and champions its own languages.

Knowledge comes to Africa in the languages of the former colonial masters – French, English, Portuguese. Education is based almost exclusively on these languages. This would pose no problem if learners acquired nearly perfect command of the foreign language in question. But they don’t. The continent’s learners struggle with English and French. So do many of their teachers.

Across the continent, European languages are seen as “superior”. Africa’s own languages are “inferior”. This language attitude is fatal to optimal education in Africa, which must rely on both indigenous and foreign languages. Repeated over generations, it is deeply entrenched in people’s minds. And it is unsustainable.

Europe cannot serve as a model for Africa. European statehood is largely based on the ideology of a largely homogeneous nation state. These nation states rest on a one state, one nation, one language philosophy. They can be run through a single national language, which happens to be the vast majority’s mother tongue. This concept makes no sense for Africa, with its great linguistic plurality.

Africa’s current situation has a parallel in European history. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther brought about Reformation, which historians consider the breakthrough to Modernity. This led to the Age of Enlightenment and laid the foundations of European exceptionalism. What started as a theological issue launched three “revolutions” which all hold lessons for Africa today: an ideological and political revolution, a technological revolution, and a linguistic revolution.

A three-fold revolution

1. Ideological and political change

Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk who doubted the Roman-Catholic teaching at his time. In his view, it contradicted the spirit of the Holy Bible. In the year 1517, took issue with Roman-Catholic dogma. He questioned how the Pope, operating from Rome, dominated Europe so completely – not only spiritually, but also when it came to politics. Luther’s followers were called “Protestants”.

Luther shattered the unity of Occidental Christianity and induced independence of regional polities from the central authority of the Pope. This eventually fostered separation of the State from the Church, which in turn bolstered individual freedom and democracy. And, crucially, it created mass education by abolishing the dominance of Latin as the sole language of (higher) education, replacing it by regional vernaculars.

The parallels to Africa are obvious. The Pope and Latin in Europe in the Middle Ages correspond to the former colonial masters and their languages in Africa.

African “vernaculars” must challenge the hegemonic dominance of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. There is nothing that European languages can do that African languages cannot do. The desired outcome would be to liberate Africans from their copycat existence in trying to imitate the model of the former colonial master.

2. Technological shifts

Luther’s propaganda took advantage of the printing revolution using movable letters. This was the beginning of mass media. Fast and cheap printing allowed ubiquitous distribution of pamphlets to be read to the illiterate masses in market places and churches.

Today’s equivalents are digitalisation and desktop publishing. Any language, African or other, can be printed at very low cost. So cost is no barrier to the re-empowerment of African languages. In fact, Africa is already embracing digitalisation and global communication even in her many “home languages” – orally, through SMSes and tweets.

3. A linguistic revolution

One of Luther’s biggest achievements was to push literacy in the vernacular. His translation of the New Testament (1522) into largely unwritten German made him the first “intellectualiser” of standard German. It would go on to become a global language of philosophy and science a few centuries later.

This allowed mass education to take root. It stimulated Germany’s ascent to a leading economy and home to philosophy, literature, science and first-class technology. Mass education based on learning through the vernacular languages eventually overcame oligarchic regimes. It fostered democracy and civil society. Latin, once so powerful, was relegated to a teaching subject in secondary schools.

There’s no reason the same could not happen in postcolonial Africa. A linguistic revolution would make African languages the default media of instruction, and give global languages like English their place as well-taught language subjects. Those global tongues could be used for translanguaging purposes when accessing imported knowledge.

Beyond the tipping point

The time is ripe for change. Africa is advancing in terms of digitalisation; already the density of cell phones is amazing. Mental decolonisation is on the intellectual agenda. Experts push it by suggesting multilingual education from kindergarten to university.

Standardisation and intellectualisation of African languages are under way, but need much more support from all quarters. Perhaps those long-ago lessons of the Reformation and the decades that followed it hold some of the answers the continent needs to jump from “tipping point” to full-blooded linguistic revolution.

An expanded version of this article can be found on the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog.