FEBRUARY 21 was International Mother Language Day; this year’s theme centred on the importance of multilingualism in education. Equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all is only possible when education responds to and reflects the multilingual nature of the society, says the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The organisation calls multilingualism the “key” to achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on education: “If you don’t understand, how can you learn?”
There are also geopolitical implications – especially at a time when there has been a greater nativist push in the domestic politics of several countries.
“There can be no authentic dialogue or effective international cooperation without respect for linguistic diversity, which opens up true understanding of every culture,” said UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova in her message to mark the day.
The conversations on language diversity and its implications on education, development and peace will probably find the greatest relevance inAfrica, which is the most linguistically diverse continent in the world.
The Language Diversity Index measures the probability that any two people of a country selected at random would have different mother tongues.
The highest possible value, 1 (or in percentage, 100%), indicates total diversity (that is, no two people have the same mother tongue) while the lowest possible value, 0 (or 0%), indicates no diversity at all (that is, everyone has the same mother tongue).
By this measure, seven of the world’s top ten most linguistically diverse countries in the world are African; indeed, African countries take up 29 of the 50 most diverse countries on the index. By some estimates, there are at least 3,000 languages spoken in Africa.
Papua New Guinea is in overall first place on the index, with a staggering 840 languages spoken on the island. There’s a 98.8% chance that two people picked at random in the country have a different mother tongue. Cameroon (and Africa’s highest ranked) is second, at 97.4%.
Large, or highly populated countries do not necessarily have a high diversity -Egypt, for example, is Africa’s third most populous at over 80 million people, but is near the bottom of the language index. South Sudan, on the other hand, has about 12 million people, but there’s a 93% chance that any two people have different mother tongues.
Part of the reason for the extensive diversity in Africa is how far people travelled in the past. The most linguistically diverse areas in the world are in places where historically, people did not travel any further than a few days on foot, for geographic reasons such hilly terrain or dense jungle.
There were also logistical reasons – large domestic animals that could be harnessed for transport like the horse were often absent.
The relative isolation of related groups meant that languages diverged quite dramatically, even in an area that was actually small in geographical terms – perhaps taking no more than three generations for dialects to become significantly different, even mutually unintelligible and evolve into whole new languages, such as Rutooro and Runyankole in Uganda; Efik and Ibibio in Nigeria, or Chitembo and Kihunde in DR Congo.
Africa abounds with numerous such examples of extensive language diversity in a small geographical area.