Americans can and should be learning African languages

There’s big business in Americans learning African languages; and maybe some good karma, too.
There’s big business in Americans learning African languages; and maybe some good karma, too.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

More Americans should learn to speak languages native to the African continent. There is a small, statistical base of speakers in the country—according to the 2011 US census, 884,660 individuals aged five years or older already speak a language originating in Africa. But we could have so much more.

Arguably, the most useful, indigenous African languages for Americans to learn are Yoruba (primarily spoken in Nigeria), Xhosa (South Africa), Swahili (Kenya, Tanzania, and much of East Africa), and Amharic (mainly Ethiopia). Four languages out of approximately 2,000 on a continent of 1.1 billion—but together, they share 210 million speakers.

The United States is the second biggest investor in African economies behind France. The Financial Times reports that, “the US was the top source country by number of [African] projects last year, with 67 US companies launching or announcing 97 projects—a 47% rise on the previous year’s tally.” The US was the third-ranked country for capital investment in Africa in 2014, with roughly $8 billion invested by US companies last year alone. So, economically and sociologically, there are huge impetuses for acquiring African languages.

“In most African countries a child is born in a particular linguistic community where they grow up speaking that community’s language,” Angaluki Muaka, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Minnesota, tells Quartz. “When they start school, they’re taught a colonial language and one of a country’s major languages, sometimes referred to as a ‘national language.’”

By the time they are in the equivalent of the sixth grade, Muaka adds, their medium of instruction is generally the colonial language—French in places like Gabon or Côte d’Ivoire, Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, English in Kenya and Ghana. By that age, they might be fluent in as many as three languages: the colonial language, one of the country’s national, languages, and their mother tongue. In South Africa, an example of this phenomenon might be a child from a Tswana-speaking community, educated in English or Afrikaans, and fluent in Xhosa.

In short, unlike Americans, the multilingual African is the norm, not the exception.

So, if most Africans are already equipped to conduct business in multiple languages, including major world tongues like English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic, what’s the point of Americans returning the favor?

“The commercial value of learning a language depends on the number and level of income of the group of language speakers,” counters James Foreman-Peck, a professor of economics and international development at Cardiff Business School. “My impression is that most of Africa has a long way to go before its languages become commercially valuable. Law and order would help, along with a marked reduction in corruption. These would encourage economic growth and create a market worth selling to. Then there would be a demand for Nigerian languages perhaps. Even so, Mandarin must surely trump all of them.”

But perhaps the impetus to learn major, indigenous African language goes beyond the immediately visible factors, in terms of commerce.

“The difference between Chinese and American enterprise in Africa is Chinese interest in learning local languages and culture,” Angaluki Muaka says. “A new or foreign language opens incredible doors of opportunities. Americans would tremendously benefit from learning African languages, especially regional lingua francas like Kiswahili of East and Central Africa, Hausa and Yoruba in West Africa; Zulu, Xhosa, and Shona in Southern Africa; Somali in the Horn of Africa; Arabic in North Africa, et cetera.”

“We should also not overlook the growing population of African immigrants in the US,” Muaka notes. “Not only do these immigrants produce heritage learners of African languages, but knowledge of their languages would considerably enhance US government service-delivery to their communities.”

“Just yesterday a friend who is the executive director of a Minnesota-based non-profit that operates in Tanzania returned from a Tanzanian trip,” she recounts. “She told me that on that single return trip of hers between Dar es Salaam and Amsterdam, flight attendants twice called for Kiswahili and Somali speaking passengers to help them with interpretation. My Caucasian friend had to step in for Kiswahili.”

Of course, it’s worth considering the moral weight of “decolonizing” language. Beyond getting ahead of the demographic curve with strategic cultural engagement, prefiguring an eventual business relationship, the moral impulse to study African languages could, in some fashion, quietly (and very partially) redress the structural, cultural inequalities perpetuated by colonialism. It’s a plan with precedent. Consider Yeats’s advocacy for the Irish language over the course of his own life (which now enjoys official status in Ireland), how people brought the Wampanoag language back to life, or how Māori and the Hawaiian language were pretty much saved through “language nests.”

The difference here is that Americans learning African languages would not “save” these tongues from extinction. They are in no danger. And though there is no immediate, large-scale economic relevance to Wampanoag, Hawaiian, or Māori, there is to Yoruba. Or Xhosa. Or Swahili. Or Amharic. A language is accessible to a potential population in a way that the levers of a production economy are not. And perhaps enrolling in Introduction to Zulu it is the first step someone can take.