This map shows the official languages of the countries in Africa.
I used to think that a national or official language of a country was the language that everyone in that country knew. What I’ve learned since I started working for Wycliffe is that the reality is much more complicated. Below is some of what I’ve learned from our linguist colleagues about language use.
In Africa the main official languages are French, English, Arabic and Portuguese, but for the most part African countries host a multilingual environment where different languages are used by different people in different contexts. Sometimes the language listed as the official language of a country is only spoken by 20% or less of the population. Often other languages are used in the home and maybe even another language or two for trade.
Let’s take Kenya as an example. More than 50 different languages are spoken there.
- Most of these languages would be considered home languages, or languages that people use with their family or with other people from the same ethnic group. It’s often a language people use to express their deep feelings with the people with whom they are closest. For some people, particularly in rural and remote areas, it may be the only language they know or the only one for which they have an extensive vocabulary.
- Trade languages are languages that different ethnic communities in a geographic zone use to conduct business and communicate with each other. One of the trade languages used all around Kenya and in many other parts of East Africa is KiSwahili. However, sometimes other languages are used for this same purpose in smaller geographic areas.
- The official language of Kenya is English (KiSwahili was recently added as another official language). Official languages are the languages used by the government–in the courts, in official documents, and in other government contexts. Official languages are often the languages used by the elite and those with the highest levels of education and in areas with a high concentration of ethnic diversity (like large urban slums) where another trade language is not the primary means of communications. In a big city like Nairobi where not only are there many different Kenyan ethnicities coming together but also people from other parts of the Africa and the world, English is more widely spoken than in other cities in Kenya. Trade languages and official or national languages can be referred to as languages of wider communication or lingua francas because they serve as bidges that allow diverse groups of people to talk to each other.
People in highly urban areas may regularly use three or more languages even in the course of one day. In contrast, someone who lives in a remote or rural area may only know one language well and may have limited vocabulary in another one or two languages.
These become important factors to consider in Bible translation projects and generally in determining what languages to use in ministry. African church leaders as well as non-African foreigners who have ministries in African countries must carefully consider several factors:
- How well do their audiences know different languages?
- What kinds of vocabulary do they know in each language?
- How do they use each one?
- In which language do they express feelings, ideas or deep truths?
- Does one language have more status than another, and what implications will choosing one language over another have in a given context?
Multilingualism isn’t new. We know from the Bible that Jesus knew several languages: Aramaic (likely his home language), Hebrew, and Greek since it was the trade language of the eastern Roman empire. He probably didn’t know the official language of the Roman empire (Latin) because it was not widely spoken in the eastern part of the empire.