Africa’s 2,138 languages are dying, but why should we care?

Talk about Babel and language comes to mind. The word which means confusion was actually a city founded by a warrior, Nimrod in ancient Babylonia, according to biblical, Sumerian and Assyrian records.

In the absence of a better explanation as to how the world came to have more than 6,500 spoken languages, even scientists who believe in the big bang theory accepted the records of the Bible about Babel.

Before Babel, everyone on earth spoke the same language. As people journeyed from the east they found a plain in Shinar (Sumeria) and dwelt there. They decided to build a city and a tower with top-quality bricks and mortar. This was to make a name for themselves and to prevent being scattered all over the earth. God was not pleased with their motives, because he had previously commanded that people and animals multiply and fill the earth. So God confused their language to the extent that they could not understand one another’s speech. This forced the people to leave off building their city and tower and to scatter all over the earth. (Genesis 1:28, 9:1, 9:7, 11: 1-8).

It is not out of place to assume that people whose languages were similar enough to understand one another settled together.

Today, some languages have become more prominent than the others due to the population and spread of people speaking them. Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Manadarin (in no particular order) are the world’s most popular languages. But there are thousands of other languages spoken in some places that bring up interesting statistics.

According to Ethnologue, there are 2, 138 living languages spoken by Africa’s over 1 billion population. Nigeria leads in the number of languages spoken per country with 526 languages. However, the more prominent languages in Nigeria are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and pidgin in addition to English which is the country’s official language. Some of the remaining over 500 languages are dying as more indigenous speakers move to urban areas and fail to teach their children their native tongue.  If the 526 languages were evenly spoken, Nigeria would have 342,205 speakers per language (assuming the country’s population is 180 million).

Nigeria is followed by Cameroon with 281 languages spoken among its 22.5 million people. If the languages were evenly spoken throughout the country, 80,194 people would speak each language.

The beauty of diversity of cultures and languages has fascinated the world for ages, but several languages are now going into extinction. As lessaccent rightly puts it; languages are not immortal. They need about 100,000 speakers at any given time to stay alive. But as long as people feel embarrassed for speaking a particular language, the number of speakers of such language will continue to reduce.

What’s wrong with the death of languages?

Judy Ravin, in a blog post on opined that languages are the keys to our historical record and provide insight into creating our future; hence we should care about preserving them.

Brian Powers also warns of the consequences of language loss. He presented these effects in an infographic on


Effects of language loss

A protest by South African students last month lays credence to Powers’s claims. Several students at Stellenbosch University in South Africa protested against the Afrikaans language being favoured at their school, alleging that it promotes racism. Afrikaans was regarded as the language of the oppressors during apartheid.

But in recent past, institutions saw nothing bad in discouraging natives from speaking their languages. From the United States to Australia and many parts of Africa, boarding schools punished students for speaking a traditional tongue.  The result: the United States has lost 115 languages in the past 500 years and the Igbo language (spoken, mainly in Nigeria) may be extinct by 2025.

While efforts are being made by some governments to strengthen native languages, issues surrounding languages have manifested to be more than just communication or social identification. At the end, enforcing languages to preserve them may do more harm than good.

Analytics on language by