News / Africa

Togolese Academics Battle for Linguistic Heritage

A student writes on a blackboard in a classroom at the Loyola Cultural Center in Agoe-Nyive, a suburb of Lome, April 15, 2013.
A student writes on a blackboard in a classroom at the Loyola Cultural Center in Agoe-Nyive, a suburb of Lome, April 15, 2013.
Lisa Bryant
Experts estimate that nearly half of the world's 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of the century, casualties of urbanization, economic development and globalization.
 
In Togo, home to 39 distinct tongues — some 2,000 languages are spoken across the continent — Professor N'bueke Adovi Goeh-Akue of the University of Lome is just one of several academics trying to preserve a rich local heritage.
 
Now focused on making documentaries of the cultural customs of the Gen, one of the myriad ethnic groups that contribute to the diversity of this tiny West African country, Goeh-Akue says he ultimately plans to launch a graduate research program on different aspects of Togo's culture.
 
"The Gen have an important place in Togo's history and culture," said Goeh-Akue, who is himself a Gen. "The ethnic group has several dozen voodoo deities. Gen rituals reflect how its people see their world; the interaction between living and dead, the visible and the invisible."
 
While the Gen continue to mark big holidays, he says, other traditions are disappearing. Today, for example, fewer and fewer Gen children go through voodoo initiation rites.
 
"Increasingly the new generation does not recognize the importance of these cultural rituals," he said, adding that although Gen language is widely spoken in the capital, it is not taught in school and does not count among Togo's national languages. "Formal education and Christianity have diluted their influence. Young people think traditional practices are uncivilized."
 
According to Anahit Minasyan, a specialist for the endangered language program at UNESCO, changing economic realities often factor in the demise of a given language.
 
"A language needs speakers, preferably mother-tongue speakers — people who speak it as their first language — but at least people who can speak it as their second language," she said. "People switch to a language or they raise their children in a language which they think will provide for a better economic opportunity in the future.
 
"So what happens in Africa, for instance, is that people switch to larger African languages — not necessarily to English or French but to ... Hausa or Swahili or Wolof — because these are larger languages that provide economic opportunities that [their] mother tongues unfortunately don't."
 
Code-switching
 
For socio-linguistics professor Komlan Essizewa, the shifting use of languages can be heard right on the streets of Lome.
 
Today's young urban Togolese, he says, frequently switch among several languages, often favoring the Mina language spoken in cities and considered prestigious.
 
"As a linguist, we have to be very worried about it. Because today, when people move back to their village, they don't use the language of the village as it is. So when they speak to the elderly, the elderly many not get very well what they want to say, because it is all code-switching — mixing other varieties that in a village they don't understand."
 
While French remains Togo's official language, the government has nationalized two of the country's most frequently spoken local languages, Ewe and Kabiye, both of which are written languages that were supposed to be taught in primary school, though Essizewa says this largely has not happened.
 
"The mood [at the beginning] was like 'yeah, we're going to do it.' Then ... not one single local language was taught in school, because there was no local support," he said. "And I would say the system itself, the French system, does not allow for the promotion of our local languages.
 
"All tests are in French, [and] the national competition to get a job is French," he added, explaining that because French is considered the language for "getting ahead" in the country, it is Togo's minority languages that face the greatest threat of extinction.
 
To help preserve the country's minority languages, Essizewa is having his University of Lome students document their own ancestral tongues, a process that isn't easy when even basic equipment such as tape recorders are readily available via university resources.

Cultural identity

For UNESCO'S Minasyan, however, linguistic preservation represents more than just maintaining one particular mode of communication. Language, he says, is a key vehicle for keeping cultural heritage alive.
 
"Often people whose language has disappeared, they feel they're losing something," she said. "They feel uprooted. They feel that something is missing. I would say in most cases, there's a very high risk of losing intangible heritage, losing cultural expression, when a language disappears."
 
Although Minasyan says linguistic and cultural preservation is the responsibility of the communities in which they're rooted, simply documenting them represents a significant step toward ensuring they are passed down to future generations.
 
At Lome's university, academics say they need more support for that to happen.

You May Like

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Kurdish service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mike Cahill from: USA
July 30, 2013 1:00 PM
For Gen, this is not at all alarming from the point of view of language endangerment. The article says the language is spoken by lots of people in the capital. One man is disturbed that voodoo is declining. It seems Goeh-Akue (or more probably, the authors of this article!) is confusing language endangerment with cultural shift.

by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
July 13, 2013 8:34 PM
Linguistic right is human right, freedom of expression, individual right, cultural identity and heritage of the nation. All languages should be protected whatever be the national language.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs