Two speech bubbles overlapping

Multilingualism as a threat to native languages

Linguistics researcher Joseph Gafaranga on working with policymaker and media practitioners to manage multilingualism and preserve the native language Kinyarwanda in Rwanda

Our language is deeply intertwined with our identity. The French speak French, the English speak English, the Germans speak German and the Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. It is no wonder then that, to be naturalised as a British citizen, one must be able to speak a British language (English, Welsh, Gaelic) and demonstrate this knowledge through a language test as part of the nationality test.

Such tests may be presented positively as ways of ensuring the new citizen is able to participate in the life the country and enjoy the advantages it offers. But they are also ways countries have of fending off other languages from establishing themselves in the new land. This, it is felt, would be a threat to the language and the identity of the welcoming country. However, not all countries can afford to block off non-native languages. Instead they invite them in and encourage their citizens to learn them. Often, this is done through declaring those non-native languages official languages and mediums of instruction. English and French are official languages in many, if not all, former British and French colonies respectively.

There are even countries (e.g. Rwanda) where a language like English has been adopted as an official language even though there are no historic ties between Britain and the country in question. The motivation for this adoption of non-native languages as official languages is often said to be to facilitate access to the wider world economy, education, technology, etc. For this reason, these languages are also referred to as languages of wider communication.

Killer languages

However, when it comes to languages, peaceful cohabitation is not easy. Powerful languages such as English, when in contact with weaker ones, have been described as killer languages. That is to say, the open access afforded to powerful languages becomes a threat to the weaker native languages. The erosion of the weaker languages by the more powerful ones is reportedly seen in the linguistic phenomenon known as code-switching or the mixing of languages in the same conversation and even within the same sentence.

Managing multilingualism

By way of managing these apparently contradictory demands to preserve the native language and the identity related to it and to generalise the use of powerful foreign languages for access reasons, the countries concerned often develop explicit policies for the protection and promotion of the native language.

A common instance of such policies takes the form of language academies. However, as is well known, policies and practices are two different things and policies may not translate into practices.  With regard to language policies in particular, their success depends on whether they address problems language users themselves feel to be real. Their success also depends on whether solutions they suggest are consonant with the solutions language users themselves naturally adopt when they are confronted with problems in discourse. The role of the researcher is to examine discourse and describe those methods that language users naturally adopt when they are confronted with problems. The role of the applied researcher is also to bring those methods to users’ and policy makers’ explicit awareness. This is exactly what I have sought to achieve through my research in Rwandan multilingualism.

The context and what I have done

Rwanda is a small landlocked country in East Africa. It is monolingual in the sense that almost all of its citizens (12 million) speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. However, at another level, Rwanda is multilingual because it has adopted three official languages in addition to Kinyarwanda. These are French, English and Swahili. This official multilingualism, and the resulting discourse practice of code-switching, is felt to be a threat to Kinyarwanda. In order to protect and promote Kinyarwanda, the Government of Rwanda has adopted an institutional solution and created the Rwandan Academy of Language and Culture. To achieve its goal, the Academy targets the use of Kinyarwanda in institutional contexts in general and in the media in particular.

As a linguist I have analysed media texts (written and spoken) and identified a number of methods or solutions media practitioners themselves adopt when they are confronted with problems in using Kinyarwanda. After analysis, I have held language awareness sessions and demonstrated these methods both to policy makers (members of the Rwandan Academy of Language and Culture) and to media practitioners. My expectation is that practitioners will in the future implement those methods more consistently and that policy makers will take them into account in developing institutional responses.

About Joseph Gafaranga

Joseph Gafaranga is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include multilingualism, discourse and conversation analysis – how language is actually used by real people in natural social contexts.

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