Living Voices: Saving Africa’s endangered languages

A language is endangered when there is a risk of it falling out of use. This happens when speakers die or lose fluency in favour of speaking another language. Endangered languages can become ‘dead’ when there are no more native speakers, or ‘extinct’ when nobody can speak the language at all.

Africa is the second most populous continent in the world, with over one billion people. It has the greatest linguistic diversity, with about 2000 different languages. Unfortunately, at least 52 languages have already gone extinct from the continent and 200 to 300 of them are endangered.

English, French, Swahili or even Bantu languages have historically been adopted as a lingua franca (a language systematically adopted as a common language for communication between people with different native languages). These languages are taught in classrooms or used as a national language. Even so, there is still hope through recent efforts to revive and revitalise endangered languages


Language is inseparable from cultural identity. It is more than just a way to communicate with others. Different languages convey meaning in special ways. These meanings are often unique as they are tied to ways of life or experiences that are specific to an ethnicity or society.

For example, the word ‘pole’ in Tanzanian Kiswahili symbolises the value of empathy in Tanzanian society. While it can be translated to English as ‘I am sorry’, it delivers a deeper feeling of empathy, likened to saying, ‘I recognise your suffering’. Certain words do not have equivalent expressions in other languages, such as ‘hanyauku’, which means ‘to walk on tiptoes across hot sand’ in Rukwangali (Namibia). Words can therefore represent what is considered significant within a culture.


Many African languages have only been passed down orally. To maintain them, they should be recorded. Establishing a written system for language allows it to be shared, learned and taught accurately. This has been done for N|uu, a Southern African language. With the help of linguists, Ms Katrina Esau created an alphabet and basic grammar rules. Ms Esau is one of the last three remaining fluent speakers of N|uu. She now teaches the language to Sān children.

Local and government organisations can also be established to preserve and promote endangered languages. One example is the Centre for Indigenous Languages and Cultural Studies (CILACS), which was formed by the Simba Maasai Outreach Organisation (SIMOO). CILACS uses both academic and experiential methods to document the Maa language and Maasai culture for future generations. They compile videos, audio clips and publications about cultural practices and community values. The Centre also uses exchange programmes to promote better understanding of Maasai culture. On an international scale, CILACS uses its research to lobby and advocate for more favourable policies.

Ultimately, the multitude of languages signals cultural and historical differences within Africa. This linguistic diversity should be embraced, as there is always reason to preserve the living voices of African mother tongue languages.



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