Debo Moses GBADEBO

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Issues relating to the development of Africa are multifaceted and have generated a lot of debate. Scholars in African developmental studies opine that the continent needs a reappraisal of its developmental strategies in line with contemporary reality. However, they differ in their approach; more importantly, they often ignored the socio-linguistic dimension to the problem. Attempts by philosophers like Hountondji, Mudimbe, Wiredu, Gyekye, Gbadegesin, Oguejiofor, among others. were recorded.  As such, the perennial issue of a multiplicity of languages in African countries is even cited as a hindrance to the development of the continent. Given that language is the expression of the essence and authenticity of the culture of a people, to take away the language of a community therefore means that the community’s freedom is denied and the people’s collective existence is distorted. This paper therefore examines the relationship between African languages and development. Specifically, it is argued that a native language policy and concrete planning could be the panacea for effective development.

Key words: African, Language, Development

Language: A conceptualization

The notion of language is so common that it does not necessarily need an elaborate explanation.  Our focus here is on human language which is opposed to animal language; it is spoken and written which is opposed to sign and other forms of message communication that are not vocalized.  Language has been defined as a system of vocal and written symbols commonly accepted and understood by a given human community and by which members of that social group communicate (Ohaegbu, 1992: 101).  Similarly, Manuwuike (1978) in his analysis of language argues that a language is a living thing. It provides insights into a culture which both shapes and reflects basic attitudes, and these attitudes in turn are held by those who live in the culture and those who live apart from it (38). The implication of this is that language is as living as the society which it serves and has a rhythm of evolution in tune with that society.  To this end, one may rightly argue that language is an attribute of the human species (Homo Sapiens) living in a society. This confirms that there are a lot of interface between language and human society. In other words, there exists an indispensable and inseparable union between language and society. Language is an arbitrary convention of a people; it is this arbitrariness of language that the Sophists (group of teachers and philosophers in the century B.C) gave an epistemic twist when they questioned the supposition that knowledge could be an expression of what is absolute (Kehinde, 2002:287). How could that be, given that the instrument for such expression is a product of an arbitrary convention?  The solution of Protagoras is that man is the measure of what is.  Therefore, knowledge at its best is relative. Gorgias goes further to note that communication will be impossible where there is no acquaintance with the real, the convention that produces such expression and the context of such expression.  Language, therefore, is a sociological weapon that enables human species to have dominion over creature.  Language explicates what we know; it functions as an instrument for instruction and communication of ideas. It is a vital instrument in both the acquisition and dispensing of knowledge.

In the light of the above, we argue that there is a strong connection between language and one’s world, and things in the world.  This is well captured in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world. (Wittgenstein, 1974: 47). The ability to use language is one of the distinctive traits of humans. Animals are restricted to natural cries which seem to express feelings of pleasure and pain.  Such sounds or expressions may accompany the presence of food, mates or danger.  With the development of consciousness, intelligence and a social group; and with the invention and use of verbal symbols, humans acquire a potentiality for freedom and knowledge that no other animal possesses. Language is therefore a fundamental factor of an individual as well as societal development. Individual development notably precedes societal development. For a nation to experience any form of development, the individual members of that society must have experienced some form of development.  Societal development therefore will be a myth if the individual human beings that make up that society are not developed. Our interest in this regard has to do with the interest of African philosophers in the issue of development especially the influence of philosophy on the human agent of development.

Development and Underdevelopment: A Conceptualization

It is a truism that human and societal development have always been within the purview of philosophic discourses. In fact, several definitions of philosophy touch on the search for the ideal life, and the concern for human existence. 

Rodney (1972) is of the view that development in human society is a multi-faceted process; it could be at the level of the individual or the society as a whole. At the level of the individual, it is called personal development. Thus, individual or personal development implies “increased skill and capacity, greater freedom, creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well-being.”(9).

Furthermore, Rodney argues that personal or individual development is the basis of societal development as a whole. In other words, the achievement of personal development is the bedrock for the development of society.  This means that in order to promote human personal development, opportunities should be provided for one to improve one’s skill and ability to be free, creative, self-disciplined, responsible and to live a good life. All these in our view, are tied to human consciousness, that is, the consciousness of a people; a culture to become conscious of itself at a particular point in time.

Pearson (1970) defines development as a process whereby a country achieves reasonable self-sustaining growth which facilitates and enhances its industrial and technological progress in the interest of its people, through the application of modern science and technology, reasonable political stability and efficient administration and organization (71).  He also sees development as participation of people in the determination of their environment. This means the opportunity for people to choose and to use their resources to the maximum capacity. 

Ogundowole (1988) also defines development as the desire and the ability to use what is available to continuously improve the quality of life, liberate people from the hazardous power and influences of natural geophysical and world historical environment (8).  Development therefore refers to the “sum-total of improvement and wellbeing of a nation” (ibid).  It begins with the self; it is a kind of qualitative as well as quantitative transformation.

A meaningful development therefore, is self-realization.  This is similar to Pearson’s argument that development is partly a process whereby a country achieves reasonable self-sustaining growth which facilitates and enhances industrial and technological progress in the interest of its people (Pearson, 1970:8).   In effect, it is my contention that development has to be internally oriented for it to be meaningful. This is why an understanding and effective use of language becomes relevant to every human being in the society so as to enable the people participate in the determination of their environment for sustainable development.

This point is further emphasized by Ogundowole that development which promotes progress must be internally based (1988:162).  This view corresponds with that of Rodney’s (1972) argument that a society develops economically as its members increase jointly their capacity for dealing with the environment, and consequently for creating more goods and services for the community (10).  This is an effort to actualize oneself through effective choices, for  the human being is not an object but a subject of history, the controller and shaper of his or her world and one who realizes him/herself through the environment. (Okolo, 1993:9). Development within the African context, in my view, would mean self-consciousness and affirmation of human existence, capacity building, increased food production and preservation, cultural rejuvenation, security, efficient leadership among others. All of these can be made possible through effective language policy and communication.  To place obstacles on African languages therefore is to rob the African race of her power of self–realization which for many philosophers is the highest ideal of humans.  

The concept of underdevelopment is used comparatively to gauge the levels of economic development between two or more countries. According to Rodney, the idea of underdevelopment is tied to the fact that human social development has been uneven and from a strictly economic view point, some human groups have advanced further by producing more and becoming wealthier (Rodney, 1972:15).  He further argues that all of the countries named as underdeveloped in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now pre-occupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. (Ibid:16).  Rodney notes that African and Asian societies were developing independently until they were taken over directly or indirectly by the capitalist powers.  And when that happened, exploitation increased and the export of surplus ensued, depriving the societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labour. In his view, developing economies have certain characteristics which contrast with the underdeveloped ones.  The developed countries are all industrialized.  They have a high output of labour per head in industry because of their advanced technology and skills.  Even their agriculture is more advanced than the rest of the world.  It takes a large number of skilled people to make an industrial economy function.

But as Rodney observes, Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world have a woefully insufficient number of highly qualified personnel.  To make the matter worse, there is at present a ‘brain drain’ from Africa, Asia and Latin America towards North America and Western Europe.  This situation has forced underdeveloped nations to recruit foreign experts at massive cost (ibid:21).

Furthermore, Rodney observes that it is typical of underdeveloped economies not to concentrate on those sectors of the economy which will in turn generate growth and raise production to a new level altogether. Rodney notes with irony that, the principal industry of many underdeveloped countries is administration and that locally distributed wealth goes into the pockets of a privileged few.  Rodney asserts also that this wealth is spent on consumption or sent abroad, rather than being redirected to productive purposes.  Thus, he concludes that underdevelopment is a result of one nation exploiting another and that no nation is naturally underdeveloped.       

Language and Individual Development

Language is indispensable to knowledge and knowledge is inevitable to the development of the individual’s intelligence and thoughts. Apart from the fact that language explicates knowledge, it also functions as a key to understanding; this help in the development of the individual’s ability and intelligence.  Language as a means of communicating knowledge contributes to the creative potentials of any nation, since it is only developed individuals with developed minds that can engage in creative thinking and bring about positive forces and changes for national development.  The development of a written language is therefore one of the important steps in the growth of a civilization. Without a written language, there will be no progress.  Language, in the words of Finex Ndiilovu, should be seen within the context of democracy and human rights whereby the right to language (s) of choice is considered as an integral part of fundamental human rights. (Ndiilovu, 2008: 138).  This concept of language right as human right has two parts, they are:

  • The right of language and
  • The right to language.

The former is a collective right whose violation automatically affects the entire speaking communities.  This implies that language policies that deliberately seek to suppress some languages would be in violation of their right of language.  Similarly, the right to language is explained as being more of an individual’s right to use one or more languages of choice. This is crucial to the development of children since every human being is introduced to language early in life.  This informal process of language acquisition is most fundamental because it takes place within the natural as well as family environment and later within the wider society.  As the child develops, he develops at all levels, his or her speech, vocabulary and intelligence with which to make key contributions to the consolidation and the development of that society.  Language at formal education level also enhances the child’s ability to read, write and speak fluently.  This enhances the child’s thinking processes and formulation of ideas.  Language at both formal and informal levels of acquisition enhances the child’s innate creative potentials; it enables the child to manipulate language in order to interrogate and express ideals for societal development.  This, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., is the cultivated citizen. For him, the prosperity of a nation depends not on the strength of its fortifications or the beauty of its public buildings, but on the number of cultivated citizens, its men of character and enlightenment (Madu, 1998: 10). A cultivated child in language acquisition can read ideas of other people expressed in learned books and journals; this in turn will widen his or her knowledge scope for developmental purposes. The intellectual awareness as well as the language competence thus enhance the child’s great personal achievement and at the same time make invaluable contributions to the development of his or her society. This in effect means that language plays fundamental roles in the development of human psyche and intelligence.  It also plays an important role in the child’s moral development; this is well noted in the case of oral tradition in African Philosophy where vital information about societal values, moral philosophy, cultural heritage are passed orally from one generation to another.  This is also well captured in the words of Obaegbu, that in traditional Africa, the child’s imagination and moral judgment are trained through folk-tales, short stories and genealogies (Obaegbu, 1992: 103).  This is an example of oral tradition captured in language and passed down from generation to generation to enhance moral development of children who must grow into adults capable of contributing effectively to the development of the society in which they live.  It is important to note also that moral teaching goes on throughout life, the social media, electronic and print media all employ the use of language to convey their messages to their target audience; even the holy books would have lost their importance, if they were not written in language for generations yet unborn.  The implication of this is that language is an important aspect of both human and societal development. 

Language and National Development

It is important to note that language and society are linked, one cannot                                         exist without the other; there can be no human society without language neither can there be a language without human society.  Language is the tool and primary medium of expression; it plays an important role in the way people know and understand.

The primary role of language, therefore, is to attend to the communicative needs of the society. Just as a family cannot function if its members do not communicate through a commonly understood and understandable language, so also, no nation can make any progress if its citizens have no functional language for ease of communication.  It must be stated that language facilitates the meeting of great minds, as well as the minds of citizens who think alike on issues affecting their common destiny. Language is used at all levels of communication, to translate government policies to the people, in public speech and lectures, books and journals etc.  All of these are forms of communication that enhance developmental goals of any society.  

Here, development is seen as a process which involves the entire spectrum of the society, with each individual making a contribution. A communication channel is, therefore, imperative in order to mobilize the whole society in the process of social change. It is an essential tool in ensuring the full participation of the masses in the political, socio-economic and cultural development (Kanana, 2013:46). To use foreign language to explain African experience and culture is, according to Ogunmodede, to be culturally alienated, live an inauthentic life and become irrelevant to our society. He stresses further that flight from one’s language is the quickest short-cut to cultural alienation (Ogunmodede, 1995: 31). The point is that if Africans do not utilize African languages in their daily discourses, their emancipation from colonialism remains incomplete. It must be realized that language is not only the vehicle for the expression of thought; it is also the framework within which thought is formed. It is on this note that we claim that language is of vital importance to national development; a claim I will be arguing for in the remaining part of the paper.    

Language as a Tool for Societal Integration

Language is a fundamental tool for societal integration as it creates a sense of unity in diversity.   The stability of any society therefore depends largely on the level of integration of its people.  Without language therefore, there cannot be any meaningful development socially, politically, economically, culturally technologically. The official languages for example, English in Nigeria and French, Portuguese in some other African countries have failed in achieving integration and stability in most African States.  The reason is because these official languages (English, French, Portuguese) have restricted audience in their adoptive domains. They are restricted to the educated elites and town dwellers, isolating the large majority of rural dwellers that constitute more than half of the population of many African societies.  For there to be development in any society, there must be a process which must involve the entire spectrum of the society, with each citizen making a contribution.  To achieve this, a language policy becomes imperative. This will serve as motivation and mobilization of the society for development. This will also bring about full participation of the whole citizens in the socio-economic, political and cultural development of the society.

Language as Basis for Cultural Development

Language reveals a lot about a people’s values and cultural heritage. It has been said to be a good store of people’s ideas about their own environment and that, “one is able to arrive at the structure of reality of a particular people beginning from their language (Masolo, 1994: 254). In effect, language is in fact  a vehicle of culture; it affords a window into the views and beliefs of a people as well as their philosophies.  It is instructive to state that part of national development is the promotion of culture, to know a people therefore is to understand the language they use to make sense of their world views.  Any nation that neglects its language has invariably neglected its culture and civilization and as such cannot hope to attain meaningful development.  Such a nation in the word of Ogunmodede is culturally alienated and becomes irrelevant to that society (Ogunmodede, 1995: 31).  Language therefore enables one to have access to records (oral or written) of the tradition and achievement of its ancestors which serve as basis for cultural rejuvenation.

Language not only expresses culture, it also creates it.  This perhaps, is why Obotetukudo regards language as that which excites, exhorts, motivates, extols, entertains, praises and blames. It persuades, informs, celebrates and memorializes (Obotetukudo, 2001: 42).  Through language, a world is made and unmade.  A world without language and symbol is a world without meaning and thus a nonexistence world (ibid). A glimpse into the past reveals that scholars have employed language to make valuable contributions to African societies. They have used both African indigenous languages and even the language of the colonialists to make the case that Africa was not in any way a cultural desert before colonialism. The works of scholars like Innocent Oyewueyi’s The African Origin of Greek Philosophy (1993), William Abraham’s The Mind of Africa (1966), Ben-Jochannan’s Africa: Mother of Western Civilization (1970), and others by scholars like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka attest to this.

These scholars use language in their creative writing to express African culture and tradition and to develop them.  These are evidential in folk lore – that rich treasure of African culture that has now been translated into writing and published for young generations of Africans. Historians, anthropologists and other scholars have all used language to review and re-write the history of the African people and their culture. Language also serves as the channel through which music, drama and other forms of entertainment in the society are conveyed. All of these are of particular importance to scholarship in all the departments of music and theatre arts of various institutions of higher learning.  This shows that language is an indispensable aspect of culture that cannot be ignored if humans really desire to develop.

African Languages and Development

Studies in African languages reveal that they are largely being eliminated as a result of their low status, patronage and restricted audience.  Efforts by scholars in different orientations and field to widen the horizons of African languages have yielded poor results in comparison with colonial imposed language which have wider audience in terms of high status occasioned by the prestigious domain in which they are being used.  Several factors have been adduced to the low status and patronage of African languages. These include: colonial burden, negative perception and attitude of African elites toward African languages, modernization and government policies.

With regard to negative attitude towards African languages, it is disheartening to note that some Africans have negative attitude towards African languages, they are, in most cases, not proud of their languages.  The most common of such negative attitude is that of the African elite who prefer to speak to their children in English at home and educate them in the foreign language at the detriment of their indigenous African languages.

The detrimental effects of using a foreign language as the medium of instruction in African schools have caused a lot of damage to the average African child. It has, for example, forced most Africans to make extra efforts to assimilate the meaning of words; and through another process of rigorous intellectual effort to capture the reality expressed by the same words. The implication of this is that writers as well as teachers who teach and write in foreign languages, to a large extent, are not writing for  an African audience. This has a way of hampering development in Africa.  

Oyesakin (1999) equally points out that “the child’s learning ability is retarded if he is taught in a strange, unfamiliar language and hence his or her intellectual development is hampered. This in turn hinders his/her contribution to national development” (97). Ohiri-Aniche also emphasizes the threat of extinction facing some Nigerian languages with its socio-economic, educational, cultural and other consequences. She proposes the use of constitutional measures to avert the trend. These measures include the recognition of the protection, preservation and promotion of indigenous languages as fundamental objectives of state policy for development purposes (Owosho, 2013: 162).

Every culture, according to Gyekye (1995), produces a philosophy; that is, there is some kind of philosophy behind or involved in the thought and action of every people (ibid xxxv). That means the thought and actions of the colonial interlopers were purely for cultural assimilation. This perhaps accounts for why they imposed their languages on Africans and made them the official languages of commerce, education and all other activities of government in their colonies. This made the languages of the colonialists more dominant, to the detriment of African languages and thus hampering development in Africa

Furthermore, Falaiye points out that “one of the greatest achievements in post-colonial Africa was when Julius Nyerere rejected the language of the colonizers (English), which is the most potent instrument of mental enslavement, and made Ki-Swahili the official national language in Tanzania and mandated that Ki-Swahili be taught universally” (Falaiye, 2005: 47). History, according to Falaiye, shows that countries which have succeeded in breaking the yoke of underdevelopment are those which have adopted their indigenous languages as medium of instruction and expression. There is need therefore to give priority to African languages and see them as the basis of African existence and survival.


This paper has raised a number of conceptual issues. For instance, it has been  established that language and its effective use are indispensable in conceiving, formulating and implementing all economic, social, cultural, scientific and other activities geared towards inter human relations, better living conditions and meaningful technological advancement of a nation. Language must be effectively used not only for the development of the individual (who is in turn expected to contribute his quota to the development of the state), but also for national unity, integration  and cultural rejuvenation.

The multilingual nature of African languages, in my view, reflects the rich cultural heritage of Africa. This should be an advantage and should be used as an instrument of national unity and integration. African languages must be effectively deployed as instruments for the decolonization of African minds so that they are abreast with the existential realities in their natural environment.

To achieve this, curriculum planners and educators must have a rethink and roll out a curriculum that supports solid language education at all levels so that African children will not be handicapped in their knowledge acquisition. This way, Africans can positively contribute to national development in all spheres of human endeavour.


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