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Language and Culture

Languages, Languages, Everywhere Languages
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Language Diversity
In Africa south of the Sahara, there are about 1900 languages, and several thousand dialects of them.  My extensive research in 1997 indicated that Kenya had 125 ethnolinguistic groups, speaking 85 distinct languages, comprising over 100 dialects.  Nigeria has about 450 distinct languages, Sudan about 250.

The number of languages or related dialects reported in various reports, lists, and analyses varies somewhat, depending on how they have grouped and analyzed, then classified the various groups of related speech across the continent.  Formal classification necessarily entails some standardized decisions on classification to enable clear refences to categories and individual forms of speech.  Language diversity is, in fact, the norm for most of the world.

The contemporary political authorities, commmonly referred to as Nation-states, do not normally represent any coherent ethnolinguistic groupings, and virtually every border in the world cuts through one or more ethnolinguistic groups, leaving a section of a discrete people group in two or more countries.

Multi-Lingual Nations
Tens of millions of Africans are multilingual.  Many Kenyans regularly use three or more languages in various contexts as a normal course of life, though, to be sure, there are still individuals in Kenyan territory that speak only one language.  Many of these multilingual folks are illiterate.  Literacy has no direct relation to multilingual skill.

Europe is no different.  France, for instance, often thought to be coterminous with the French language, is home to 8 major languages, with numerous dialect forms native the their areas for centuries.  French is a second language for millions of French citizens.  French is also the native language of many Europeans in other countries.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism leads to mixing of traditional ethnicities, expecially in the cities, where youth of different tribal and language backgrounds marry and choose which language or languages to use in the home and with the children.  This is also an important factor in the development of new ethnolingusitic entities in our time, as has happened throughout human history.

Some of the children of these new urban families learn two or more languages in the home, some learn one, which may be the language of one parent or the other. More commonly in the late 20th century, in Nairobi for instance, we were seeing the patrents choose either Swahili or Enlgish for use in the home.  Among urban youth living and learning in urban school settings, Swahili and then English becase their locus of identity development and education in their mixed school setting.

New Urban Ethnicities
This language, or in some cases both English and Swahil together, became the native language, the mother tongue of the children of that family. We are seeing here the birth and gradual defining of a new urban African ethnicity, different from either of the parent ethnicities of either urban member of the urban couple.  Second and third generation Kenyans constitue one or more new ethncities, with urbanity as its primary distinguishing or defining factor.

Language has a life of its own, and the social dimensions are too often and too easily overlooked in common popular discussions of language and culture, especially in discusssions about the urban situations.  These socio-linguistic factors are often overlooks factors and even driving forces in urban questions and problems or unrest.

Mono-Lingual Limitations
The rapid settlement of the American continents in recent history has led to an unusual situation of primarily monolingual cultures.  This is most prominent in English-speaking North America.  The English-speaking native is really at a disadvantage in dealing with the rest of the world.

The dominance of English may provide a bridge for the English speaker, but language isolation is a limitation in life. This trasitional monolingualism is now being challenged.  The language and social maps of North America are being reconfigured as we watch, with the rapid immigration from all over the world, in the last generation and now accelerating.

See also How to Learn a Language and a Culture


A version of this aritcle originally published in the language and culture-learning newsletter Focus on Communication Effectiveness, No. 25, September 1997
Posted 23 May 2001
Rewritten 7 May 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Personal Web Site:  The Jenkins Millennium Culture Centre
Email: researchguy@iname.com

Copyright © 2001, 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission given for free download and use for personal and educational purposes. All other rights reserved.
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