Have you ever heard of the NJUU language? Did you know that this language has only one remaining fluent speaker today? Do you know where it is spoken?
Njuu language is the sole survivor of the Tuu cluster of San languages spoken in South Africa. It is considered the original language of South Africa.
This language was declared extinct in 1973, only to be rediscovered in the late 1990s when a radio appeal turned up dozens of elderly speakers. This number progressively reduced to only 3 people, namely Ouma Katrina Esau, Hanna Koper, and Griet Seekoei, all sisters.
Today, Ouma Katrina, aged 87, is the only remaining fluent speaker of Njuu, after her elder sisters have passed away. She works hard to save her language from dying out by teaching it to the local children for about a decade in Upington, town in the Northern Cape Province where she lives.
The United Nations recognizes this language as critically endangered. How do we prevent this from happening to other African languages?
Just like Njuu, many other African indigenous languages are on the verge of extinction and are, therefore, “critically endangered”. Of the 2,158 living languages in Africa, 195 are institutional, 581 are developing, 859 are vigorous, 396 are endangered, and 127 are dying. Per the statistics, about 523 languages (endangered and dying languages) have to be saved. These languages mainly account for minority languages.
What is a minority language? How does a language become classified as a “minority language”? Why do minority languages disappear? How can minority languages be prevented from extinction? These are the questions that this piece will be exploring.
What is a “minority language”?
A “minority language” is a language spoken by less than 50% of the population in a given region, state, or country. Hence, a language can be a minority language in one region or state but a majority language in another, depending on the number of the speaker population within a given geographic context.
How does a language become a minority language and eventually die?
The first reason a language becomes a minority language is that speakers stop using their mother tongue at the expense of another language. Indeed, after migrating to a new region or state, sometimes because of natural disasters, some people stop using their mother tongue and begin to learn and use that of the region they have relocated to.
Hence, these people may begin to use only that new language with their children, and gradually the intergenerational transmission of the mother tongue will be reduced or cease. As a consequence, the number of speakers who use that language as their primary language will start to decrease, and the total number of speakers will eventually decrease, causing the language to become a minority language. In the long run, the language may no longer be used at all and may go extinct.
The second reason is that when fewer people connect their ethnic identity with a particular language, they tend not to give value to that language and therefore do not see the need to use it or pass it on to their children. Any language with many of this category of people will definitely have fewer speakers and become a minority language and/or an endangered language.
A third reason is the age range of the speakers of a particular language. Let us take the example of the aforementioned language, Njuu. Let us consider that there are 100 speakers, of whom 40 are above 50 years. As these 40 people grow older and die, the number of speakers will decrease. Younger speakers may multiply, but if they fail to pass on their mother tongue to their children, the language will not only become a minority language but be “critically endangered”.
A language may die as a result of economic reasons. Indeed, speakers of a minority language may, for one reason or another, decide that it is better for their children to speak a language that is tied to economic success. And this is to guarantee them a good future. Hence, they do not see the need to teach their own language to their children. Eventually, the more parents would do that, the fewer speakers of that particular language would have. And when those parents are no more, there would gradually be no living speakers and that language would die.
How can minority/endangered languages be prevented from extinction?
1. The most crucial step in preserving a language and preventing its extinction is to create and maintain a detailed documentation of that language. In other words, written records (books), transcriptions, and recordings should be created for each minority/endangered language for its preservation. Languages involve technical aspects such as syntax, punctuation, phonology, and syllables that have to be carefully curated and recorded. And for that matter, linguists and anthropologists must work together to recreate accurate language resources.
2. The second effective way to preserve an endangered language is to teach it. Just as Katrina Esau said “I am teaching the language because I do not want it to become extinct when we die”. And this is a two-way affair. First, speakers of a particular endangered language must pass the language on to their children by teaching them how to speak it.
Secondly, speakers of endangered languages must willingly teach their language to fellow citizens from different ethnic groups. This will increase the number of speakers of those languages and prevent them from dying. This is where the creation and maintenance of language resources are relevant because they will be used in the teaching process. Just as Ouma Katrina Esau has taken upon herself to teach her language at her home to the children of the community, she lives in.
3. The last, but not the least, means to save an endangered language is the use of technology to promote it. That is, create online dictionaries, websites, applications that will allow more people to learn it and promote it. An example of the various applications designed to promote African local languages is Khaya, a mobile application used to translate Ghanaian languages. Social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook help to preserve languages as they allow users to create communities where they can both teach and promote their language. Those platforms allow speakers to create video, textual, and audio records that may be relevant many years later. Let us note that languages that are not adequately documented will disappear altogether.
Africa is a linguistically and culturally blessed continent, as it registers 2,158 local languages. How sad will it be to have a smaller number of languages when a number of them will have died in the upcoming years! This would happen only if we don’t act to save endangered languages. You, too, can help prevent minority language extinction, so let us come together and save endangered languages by following the few actions I shared in this article.
I would be pleased to read from you. Do you know any minority languages? What is the health of your mother tongue? What are you doing to preserve it for future generations? If you are a parent, are you speaking your mother tongue at home to your kids? If no, feel free to explain why! Kabod is on a mandate of increasing understanding on the need to use African languages and the role technology can play in this process! Do not hesitate to contact us if interested in getting teachers or translators from or to your mother tongue.
We are here for you and you can also join us in our network of African Languages Translators and Teachers (ALATT) on LinkedIn.
I am Sandra Michelle Ouattara and I am a professional Translator with 5 five years of experience in the field. I currently work at Kabod Group International as an Assistant Language Officer in Ghana. I translate from English to French vice versa.
Also I am a member of the Network of African Languages Association of Translators and Teachers (ALATT)