“No country can make progress on the basis of a borrowed language”

Prof PrahProfessor Kwesi Kwaa Prah is the founder of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), a civil society, Pan-African organisation which focuses on African development through the lens of cultural, social, historical, political and economic research. Currently, through the CASAS Harmonization and Standardization of African Languages Project, Professor Prah and CASAS are working towards improving African literacy rates. By forming standardised groupings of mutually intelligible African dialects, Prah hopes to overcome not only the local linguistic barriers created by the diversity of African dialects, but also to finally break down the far more divisive borders that are maintained by the pervasive grip of post-colonial languages across the Continent. This interview with him will be one of those included in the eLearning Africa Report 2013, our wide-ranging investigation of ICT developments on the Continent, due to be launched at the upcoming eLearning Africa Conference.

Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah was interviewed by Alicia Mitchell

Speaking about his work with language and education from Cape Town, Prah asserts that questions of relevance when speaking about the local languages of Africa are themselves irrelevant. “Every language is important. Icelandic is important. Italian is important. Greek is important. Could you ever ask someone from one of these countries whether the language they speak is important? In the same token, African languages should be allowed to flourish. We do not talk about the ‘indigenous languages’ of France, Slovakia or the Czech Republic, so why do we insist on speaking in these terms when it comes to Africa?”

Despite both national and international focus on literacy and education in Africa, in part driven by the soon-to-expire Millennium Development Goals, the resulting programmes and policies are all too often delivered in the languages of former colonial powers – particularly English, French and Portuguese – at the cost of excluding the majority and those most in need.  “No country can make progress on the basis of a borrowed language, understood only by a minority,” says Prah, “Only ten per cent of African people can speak French, Portuguese or English fluently. These languages cannot be the only languages of African development.”

The problem is not merely one of shaking off the remnants of the past, but of convincing those within every level of African society that undermining the status of African languages serves the interests of no one. “It’s not just a question of Western arrogance,” explains Prah, “but also of African complicity. The cultural power of the African elite is based on the fact that they are proficient users of post-colonial languages. They instil a new colonial order which excludes the majority from the structures of power.” Prah has found some governments to be supportive of his work with CASAS, but overall there has been little official recognition.

However, he suggests that even those in positions of power are allowing themselves to be limited by the same colonial hierarchies of the past. “They are second-hand users of these cultures. Therefore, they are actually positioning themselves as inferiors. This can lead to a bottle-neck of tension that can explode.”

As an inspirational example for African countries to follow, Prah points to Vietnam and their Southeast Asian neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. “Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. They stopped using the language of their French colonisers: this is precisely why they are succeeding.”

Language, education, and, with the ongoing growth in ICT-supported learning, technology, are co-agents of change with huge potential. However, Professor Prah notes that with the current default to post-colonial languages in the majority of education ‘solutions’ brought to the Continent, ICT and education remain inaccessible to the overwhelming majority: “Education is still a privilege of the westernised elite. We talk about development through education and training, but in whose language?”

The knee-jerk response to arguments like these is often that the investment and technology for these ICT products comes from abroad – from the United States, from Europe or Asia – and using ‘international’ languages such as English or French are the only economically viable options, but Prah disagrees. “Some African languages are spoken by fifty or sixty million people. It makes economic sense to develop products for this market, by this market.” If we continue to pretend that African languages are unimportant in the drive to achieve ‘education for all’, says Prah, “we will forever be waiting for 90% of Africans to become English!”

Despite the enthusiastic work of organisations such as CASAS, Prah admits that the movement to champion African languages as a path towards progress is still in the “very initial, half-hearted stages; it is not happening yet”. However, he confidently points to the historical precedent that proves that the democratisation of language is a necessary precursor for the democratisation of society. “For as long as Europe used Latin as the language of authority and academia, knowledge was in the hands of monks, aristocrats and scholars. It is only the common languages – the languages of the street – that can lead to democratic progress. Similarly, for as long as ICTs in Africa are based solely around English, French and Portuguese, we will not get anywhere.” Knowledge is power, and language is the fundamental component of knowledge acquisition and dissemination.

The key message that Professor Prah is determined to share with governments,  investors, development organisations and the world at large is a simple one: for as long as Africans are supposed to use languages that are not their own, no progress will ever be made. “ICT is enormously important – it is moving the world forward and of great intellectual interest – but without African languages, we cannot make a difference to Africans. You cannot lift Africa without African languages.”

Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah founded The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS, casas.co.za) in 1997. CASAS acts as a research network within Africa and amongst the African diaspora. The organisation focuses on “cultural issues and their relationship to development, and selected basic research on the structure of African society”. In recent years, the focus of CASAS on African languages has led to the production of various publications, including dictionaries and research papers focusing on diverse African languages.

Alongside the most up-to-date statistics analysing the impact of ICTs and eLearning in Africa, the eLearning Africa Report recounts the experiences, heartfelt beliefs and aspirations of those surveyed, and contains eleven full-length interviews with prominent eLearning experts, of which this is just one. Raw data, while important, can only give limited insight; these interviews are intended to add a greater depth and range to the Report, and reflect the many complex faces of ICT in Africa today. Many of these interviewees, Professor Prah amongst them, will be present at the eLearning Africa Conference for the launch of the Report – after which it will be made available on our website for free.


  1. Hans-Joachim Karl

    I totally agree with the ideas of Prof. Prah.

    In my mind it is not a problem of more than 2.00 0 African languages.
    It is just the problem of beginning the work on this subject.

    Together with students and some enthusiasts in Germany we began in 2009 to establish Online-dictionaries for African languages under the name xLingua. Now we have four African languages: Igbo, Swahili, Yoruba and Wolof. And we have a lot of users. The people are interested in such services.

    Another problem is the lack of standardization. Most African languages have not really an authority which defines the language well. There is a lot to do for linguists in African universities.

    Most of the African people speak their natural language well. But only some of them are really able to write it in a good manner. As long as this problem exists, there will be not found enough authors for Wikipedia-articles.

    I enjoy further discussions at the eLearning in Windhoek!

  2. Peter Alilale

    “We do not hear similar arguments in Europe, where there are 23 ‘official’ langauges and 60 ‘indigenous regional or minority language communities’.”

    I agree with you Alicia, but only in part. It is true that the European Union has put in place a vast infrastructure for translation between these languages: but your comparison to Africa lacks a sense of scale. In Africa it is a matter of thousands and thousands – but do not think I am saying that there are “too many”.

    One of the processes involved in founding the nation states of Europe was the standardisation of language and the oppression and extinctification of minority languages. It happened in France, in Russia, and in Great Britain – which used to have upwards of six spoken languages. Europe’s 60 minority language communities are lucky survivals of the process of uniting the nation state around a common language.

    Africa has managed to hold on to many of its linguistic treasures, despite the imposition of English and French. But we must not consider the colonial languages as a yoke. Perhaps they are the gift Africa needs to preserve its minority languages – some spoken by mere hundreds – for the future. Used as a utilitarian lingua franca for trans-continental communication, English and French, as umbrella languages, not loved but practically used, could preserve this linguistic diversity beneath them – by keeping all African languages as precious minorities.

  3. “The colonial languages may well be a curse as far as education is concerned; but when you wish to exchange ideas with someone far away across the continent, they are extremely helpful.”

    We do not hear similar arguments in Europe, where there are 23 ‘official’ langauges and 60 ‘indigenous regional or minority language communities’.

    Of course it is helpful when people learn 2nd and 3rd languages, but I do not think that ease of international communication is not a good argument for the suppression or neglect of a country or region’s language in favour of a foreign language that only a minority of the population is educated to use proficiently.

  4. Wikipedia has 37,736,243 articles in 285 languages. What’s significant about this? This massive accumulation of knowledge happened in a relatively short period of time because of the contributions of many people: crowdsourcing. The ‘crowd’ in Africa will be a powerful source of translation (into and out of African languages) in the future.

    At Translators without Borders (www.translatorswithoutborders.org) we are working on solutions to empower Africans to translate critical knowledge into the languages spoken by their communities, and to share what their communities have to say with the world.

    We couldn’t agree more with what Professor Prah says about the critical importance of learning in one’s own language. No one says Europe has “too many languages”!

    Yes, there are over 2000 languages in Africa, and that’s a challenge. But if the small contributions from large numbers of people can build Wikipedia, then the combined might of Africans can take down every language barrier.

    Best practices and technological support can create a veritable army of local language translators.


    • The point of his work is that there ARE NOT over 2000 languages in Africa. There are dialects that have been elevated to languages by a very corrosive missionary past. Do go and read his papers. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi are not different languages just as Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele are not different languages. They are mutually intelligible dialects of core languages that can easily by harmonized to a standard written form (which thankfully with his work has already been done). This is true across the continent.

  5. Peter Alilale

    What we have to remember is, the importance of trans-African conversations. While Professor Prah and CASAS’ mutually intelligible dialects and languages may facilitate communication at the local and national level, they certainly cannot overcome the fact that Africa is a continent of many different language families. The colonial languages may well be a curse as far as education is concerned; but when you wish to exchange ideas with someone far away across the continent, they are extremely helpful.

  6. Thanks for the opportunity to comment from my sick bed!Prof Prah is partially right but belated due to technology.Sara is also right, too many dialects called languages.Now which way forward? In Africa, reduce the languages to almost THREE and use ICT power! In summary, TODAY TECHNNOLOGY IS POWER in the KNOWLEGE ECONOMY! God bless Africa with WISDOM to make the right CHOICE!

  7. Livy Goldstein

    It is arrogant of Western companies to enter Africa and ignore the history and culture associated with the many African languages. I’m looking forward to more of Professor Prah’s insights at elearning Africa.


  8. Sara Zimmerman

    Professor Prah makes some interesting points: It is true that forcing a continent of people to work and learn in a language that they don’t feel comfortable is silly, but the limiting factor is the great number of languages spoken throughout the continent and this is a matter of great contention amongst many academics.

    • This is a very unfortunate and persistent myth that Africa is home to a great number of languages. It’s just not true. Missionaries have created languages out of dialects. Just imagine Chinese missionaries translating the varieties of english spoken in the world down on paper. You would get tremendous difference when transliterating spoken english. The same has happened all over Africa. For example Rwanda and Burundi. 20 million people where 100% of both populations speak Kinyarwanda and Kirundi…two mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. Yet, Rwanda is “English speaking” and Burundi is “French speaking”. It’s pure insanity.

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