Linguistic diversity, formal education, and economic development: the Sub Saharan African chicken-and-egg dilemma

The interdependence between language, formal education, and economic development in Sub Saharan Africa has typically been discussed in the following ways: The economic development of Sub Saharan Africa has been hampered by the large number of its indigenous languages, which do not serve as media of education. Academic knowledge is imparted in the European official languages, which are ethnically neutral. Formal education has failed because the media of education are foreign languages. Most graduating students are not well prepared for the economic market.

These claims contain some fallacies. Since Independence, the greatest part of Sub Saharan African national economies has lied in the blue-collar sector, which does not require knowledge of the European official languages. Because it was expanding during the colonial period, it should be able to work during the post-colonial period too. Literacy can be developed in the major lingua francas, which are learned naturalistically, without resistance. Many children cannot continue beyond elementary school simply because their parents cannot afford the fees. Economic underdevelopment appears to be part of the reasons for the failure of education.

For the lower level of elementary school, some countries offer a choice between education in an indigenous language and an alternative in the relevant European official language, which is more expensive. Parents that can really make a choice prefer the latter, because the chances of accessing a “good job” are greater after graduation. Thus, the economy of the job market disfavors education in indigenous languages. Changing the language of the white-collar sector of the economy is more likely to convince parents of advantages of educating their children in indigenous languages. 

Multilingualism is obviously not the reason for the decline of both economies and schools in Sub Saharan Africa. The reasons for the poor performance of the economies lie elsewhere than in the quality of education. On the other hand, stronger economies operating in indigenous languages in both the blue- and the white-collar sectors can help improve African schools and ensure the success of education in indigenous languages.

Salikoko is the Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College, Professor on the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, and Professor on the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, at the University of Chicago. His research area is evolutionary linguistics, focused on the phylogenetic emergence of language and how languages have been affected by colonization and world-wide globalization. His books include The Ecology of Language Evolution (CUP, 2001), Créoles, écologie sociale, évolution linguistique (l’Harmattan, 2005), and Language Evolution: Contact, competition and change (Continuum Press, 2008). He has also published about 250 articles, book chapters, and book reviews.

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