The use of the English language plays a crucial and dominant role in African literature. In contemporary African literature the use of English is often the key element for success as an African writer. This enables them to express their views across a larger area of today’s global world. However writing in English instead of their native tongues may come at a high price for these African writers. By them replacing their native languages with English could eventually lead to the eradication of their native tongues. The aim of this essay is to address the following key elements which influence the role of English in African literature. Colonization played a leading role in placing English at the forefront of African literature. English can be viewed as a ‘necessary evil’, especially by most of those African writers who did not inherit the English language.
The English language forms the core of African literature, throughout most parts of Africa. This is often evident in our everyday experiences. For example, the majority of the educational institutes in Africa, use English as a medium for engaging in learning activities. English has long been the language of politics. Furthermore, in the media and in literature, English is clearly the dominant language.
In order for us to gain an understanding as to why English is the dominate language in African literature we need to address the main factor which has placed English at the centre of African literature. The effects of colonialism had the most influence over this situation.
In 1884, Europe divided the African countries into separate colonies and ‘shaped’ the African nations under their colonial powers. These separate colonies were classified according to the languages of Europe, English- speaking, Portuguese-speaking and French-speaking African countries.
Colonialism controlled and limited the use of African languages by imposing negative and stereotypical views upon these African languages. This is clearly stated by S.N.Dlamini..
Another interpretation of the use of the Zulu language comes from its association with illiteracy and ignorance. This interpretation was historic, and a typical example of how British colonisation and a British education system impacted on language use. With colonialism, African languages were downgraded, and the language of the colonising country, English became the language of commerce, education and an instrument with which to measure knowledge(Dlamini:2005:16)
The use of English in African literature can most definitely be viewed as a necessary evil. On the one hand, the English language plays a fundamental part in many aspects of communication. For instance, those African writers who choose to write in English can express their opinions, views, experiences and the like, across a more global scale. On the other hand, it’s a different scenario altogether for those whom have had to acquire English as their second language. Obviously, people would generally feel more comfortable writing in their home language as opposed to an additional language.
Chinua Achebe wrote:
“Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting evil throw out the good with it.” (Achebe;2005;31)
There is no use in ignoring the fact that most literature will continue to be written in English. There are many reasons as to why it would not be feasible to banish the use of European languages in Africa, in replace of an African language. Firstly, this would affect the levels of communication within Africa and in relation with the rest of the world, as there are very few individuals in other parts of the world that understand one of the African languages.
Secondly, this process would entail many expenses and complications. For instance, the changing of educational institutions into ones with and African language as a medium for learning.
‘…those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart Alecs with an eye on the main chance-outside their own countries. They are the by-products of the same process that made the new nation states of Africa’ (Achebe;2005;31)
Clearly, there are many advantages of writing in a first world language. Firstly, this would cultivate Africa to be a part of the global network of communication. For instance, this would allow African writers to express their views across a broader scale of the globe. Mazizi Kunene stated, “African literature is no literature unless it is used as a vehicle of ideas.” Furthermore, the use of a ‘universal’ language helps to destroy the barriers between different social or cultural groups by creating the link of communication.
Secondly, with the ability to communicate, this allows these different social and cultural groups to interact, thus creating recognition for these different cultural groups. Charles Taylor creates a clear indication of the importance of recognition in his article The politics of recognition.
The demand for recognition in multiculturalism is given urgency by the supposed links between recognition and identity, where this multiculturalism designates something like a persons understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being. The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion , if the people or society around them then mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.
In other words, communication helps to facilitate the recognition of groups, which is especially crucial for those smaller cultural groups from being oppressed and viewed as inferior, due to people’s ignorance.
On the other hand, one needs to address the obstacles facing the African writer. For those who have acquired English as their second language, often feel that they are incapable of expressing themselves in the correct context when writing in English. Some feel they have to first think in their native tongue and then translate it into English and in the process their writing looses its meaning.
Achebe stated in his article, ‘The English language and the African writer’
“The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother-tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it.” (Achebe,C:2005:33)
Firstly, in order to retain ones self identity, the sense of who you are and where you came from, one must first define themselves in relation to their language and their environment. This should be a crucial element, before adopting other languages. Ngugi wa Thiongo stated,
“The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a peoples definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.(2005:25)
Hopefully there will still be writers who choose to write in their native languages, to ensure the existence and the development of African literature.
Evidently as the above evaluation states, African literature will continue to be dominated by the use of the English language. Although this is the reality to date, those Africans should not do so at the expense of abandoning their mother-tongue.