Language: A New Form of Colonialism?

Published on 27th June 2011

Dorothea E. Müller
As I walk with a friend through the “Odenwald” and talk about a planned trip to Bolivia, I casually express my plan to learn some Spanish.

“Why?” asks my friend in shock. “Don’t people in Bolivia speak enough English to communicate during your holidays?”

“Probably,” I reply. “I could survive in Bolivia without knowing any Spanish. Despite the fact that Spanish is not the original language in Bolivia, I still feel the urge to learn it. It is important to speak Spanish, at least.”

To clarify my point of view, I tell her the experiences during my various stays abroad. While travelling and living within the African continent, I experience how people from the West expect that everybody should know English or French languages. They nearly become angry when the natives answer: “Sorry, but I neither understand nor speak English very well.”

English, French, German or Spanish are the official languages in various countries despite the fact that they are not the respective countries’ mother tongues. What impact do “foreign” languages have on a state, culture and a people’s personality when they become the “official” language?

Worldwide, culture and language are important symbols of identity. Individual or social groups seek to be distinct. While knowledge structures, ways of acting and linguistic resources of a society are partly the result of cultural activities, language is of particular importance. It determines the relationship between perception and thinking of individuals or groups. Language influences group-related, collective action. It is a cultural value and source of identity as well as the self-consciousness of a people. While a state can decay and a people be suppressed, their mother tongue cannot be taken away unless no attention is paid to it or it is not considered to be important.

Horst Tiwald, a German professor, sees language as a cultural and cognitive tool that allows in a particular form of culture-specific statements but excludes others. It enables people to receive feedback of their own. Individuals experience connectedness to the society’s experience. While individuals are shaped by language, they in turn enable it to grow.

If the “original language” is overlain by a foreign language that happens to become the central and official language, this impacts on the culture and self confidence of a people. It produces a feeling of inferiority and weakens the nation. When African school children are taught in English, French or Portuguese, what does this communicate about their native language? It is not worth anything compared to English, French or Portuguese.

In Ghana for example, Children speaking Twi or Ga in school are punished by their teachers. From the very beginning, they are taught that without speaking English, they will never be well-off. A very important part of their culture is thus put behind as English is elevated. This weakens the Ghanaian self-confidence. In the wider Africa, it is disheartening to see African discussants fail to agree in conferences just because they hail from “anglophone’’ Africa, “francophone’’ Africa or “lusophone’’ Africa.


One would ask, how would international negotiations look like if the sub-Saharan African partners demanded that Swahili, Twi or Ga, among others, be used as mediums of communication at the international stage? Wouldn’t  international negotiations become more complicated, confusing and slower? But what criteria is used to venerate a language above the other?  Expressing oneself using the mother tongue could make people and their arguments stronger. People gain security using their own language. Multi-languages would be enriching on the international stage.

For self-confidence, the preservation of cultures and the future of the African continent, it is necessary to preserve the original African languages and to maintain and support their value. To quote Wilhelm von Humboldt, language ought to be the “mental peculiarity” of a nation and the expression of its self-consciousness. In Friedrich Schiller’s words, language “is the mirror of a nation. If we look into this mirror we meet an excellent picture of ourselves.”

Since language is important for cultural preservation and identity and a people’s self-confidence, it is important that respective African people work to preserve, enrich and also market their own languages. This should extend to  cuisine and mode of dressing.

By Dorothea E. Müller.

The author is a student of  Political Science and Sociology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.


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