There are between 700 to 3,000 different languages spoken in Africa. However, hundreds of African indigenous languages are on the verge of extinction. This includes thirteen languages in Kenya. On this premise, Kenyan civil society groups recently converged in Nairobi to discuss a proposed bill to safeguard these disappearing dialects.
According to the United Nation’s cultural organization UNESCO, Yakunte is extinct. A report by Voice of America says, 102-year-old Leriman Letiko and his 95-year-old brother, Leteiyon are the only ones left out of a tribe of 10,000 that can speak Yakunte fluently. However, an indigenous tribe in the Mukogodo Forest, Yiaku, and its environs in Laikipia are fighting to keep the language alive. Narrating the loss of this indigenous African language Letiko said,
“Both my mother and grandmother spoke Yakunte. The period when we started interacting more and intermarrying with the Maasai, that’s when the language started to get lost. When we married into a different tribe, we adopted their languages.”
Efforts to save indigenous African languages
Yakunte is one of the many disappearing indigenous African languages. Letiko has been passing down the language and cultural knowledge to his sons and other Yaakus using oral tradition. However, he believes the best way to save the language is by introducing it in schools.
“Right now we have schools and we have education. If the language is introduced in schools in this area, get teachers and the older Yaakus involved. I am confident we can revive the language.”
A few weeks ago in Kenya, there was a launch of a new television station to serve the Rift Valley region. This region is the home to several indigenous African languages and groups including Pokot, Samburu, and Maasai. Consequently, the station will air mostly Christian programs in 10 indigenous African languages including Saboat/Marakwet, Pokot, Gusii, Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu, and Kalenjin.
Different African leaders have been taking great strides to keep indigenous African languages alive. One of such moves is the recent production of siSwati language dictionary as announced by the Pan South African Language Board. Part of the project includes creating a system of mathematical notations in siSwati.
The creation and translation of business software into indigenous African languages is another bold step to preserve native languages in South Africa. The Zuza Foundation is spearheading this project. Consequently, they are hiring specialists to translate Linux into Xhosa and Zulu. However, their goal is for the translation to cover 9 languages. Today, there are desktop applications that are available in Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.
The reason why the younger generations are speaking less native languages
The extremely low number of young speakers of indigenous African languages is alarming. If this trend continues, in 50 years from now, there may be no speakers of some of the languages. Many critics believe some of the efforts to save ‘dying’ languages are futile. According to them, the pervasive influence of mass media spreading ‘colonizing’ languages like Arabic, French, and English take the bulk of the blame.
However, experts think the real culprits are political considerations and economic constraints. Due to large-scale unemployment, the young population is often work in cities where they speak major languages at the detriment of their lesser-known languages. In Kenya, Yaku Laikipia Trust hopes to reverse this trend. The director of the trust, Jennifer Konate said,
“What we want to embark on is documentation, taking the voice of the elders that are available, bringing them together to continue talking, so we want to have a place where they will be talking and we will be recording their language.”
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