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Ban on English in Italian Public Spaces; Are There Lessons for Africa?

Picture showing African languages and a map of Africa

There are about 6, 500 officially recognised languages in the world. This is according to the data provided by the World Data Info. Out of these languages, the country with the most languages and dialects is stated as Papua New Guinea. Nigeria in West Africa also ranks high with over 500 known languages.

Africa boasts of having close to 2000 languages with about 8, 000 dialects as well. Some historians have traced the origin of a variety of languages to the story of the tower of Babel in the Genesis account of the Bible.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines language as the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community. English is the second-most widely spoken language in the world just behind the Chinese language. Many languages are based on the same language family and a good example is the English language with the Dutch, Swedish and German. These languages belong to the Germanic languages.

Languages define people, they tell the history of inhabitants of a particular geo-location or region.  Many languages are based on the same language family, this is why we see similarities in words used across different languages. Could this be the reason for the Italian parliament raising an eyebrow at the English language taking prominence in their country?

Recently, Italy’s ruling party introduced a law that wants to ban public and private entities from using English in official communications. Not only are they taking measures to ban the use of the English language as official communication, but there is also a fine attached to it, 100,000 euros. The Nationalist Brothers of Italy party believes that the spread of English demeans the Italian language and how it is popular in parts of Europe especially now that the UK left the European Union, famously dubbed BREXIT.

The bill wants the use of English in official documentation, including acronyms and names of job roles in companies operating in the country to be prohibited.

Some of the proponents of the bill argue that Italy is slipping into Anglomania which is the excessive enthusiasm for all things English and they are worried about the trend. Should Africans be worried too? Are Africans already caught up in the web of Anglomania or it is just a figment of imagination? Are African languages like Swahili, Yoruba, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Xhosa, Akan and Oromo endangered? The questions can be unending.

The English language is not a stranger to the Italian Language. In fact, there are hundreds of words taken from Latin. Latin is the perceived precursor of the Italian language. So, words like agenda, acumen, stipend, moribund and reprisal all trace their roots to Latin.

The English language is the official language in over 50 countries of the world and Africa sits pretty on top of that list. In Africa, there are over 20 countries where English is adopted as an official language. The countries include Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda and Zambia amongst others.

Should this be a thing of pride or a cause for concern? In many African countries, English is used as a medium of instruction and this starts from the primary school level up until the tertiary institution stage.

Even in former French colonies such as Mali and Senegal, English is the first compulsory foreign language taught. One must give it to those who made sure the English language remained relevant and permeated every nook and cranny of the earth. In the 90s in Nigeria, there was a fad that made speaking languages other than the English language a punishable affair. Inscriptions such as ‘Vernacular is prohibited here’ were usually seen in schools and sometimes small fines are attached for the offender if vernacular is spoken.

Little wonder why the Italian government is proposing a fine of 100,000 euros for those who use English instead of the Italian language in private and public communication. Is there a lesson embedded here for African leaders? Can African countries start imposing fines if an institution magnifies the English language ahead of other local languages?

The vernacular referenced here is indeed the mother tongue of these African learners which has sadly been turned into a prohibited language of use. Some have argued that in a society with various languages, there ought to be a uniform language for ease of communication.

This is a logical argument provided that it does not make the foreign language superior to one’s indigenous language. Thankfully, some institutions are now prioritising the teaching of history and languages in their schools. Also, with the advent of technology, games and apps are created to make kids reconnect with their indigenous language.

This may be ample time to draw lessons from the Italian example and elevate the indigenous languages to an enviable level. It is high time African countries took up the mantle of language preservation with all determination and seriousness and help nurture endangered languages on the continent. That way, generations unborn will have a true identity to call their own.

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