LOME, TOGO — 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."
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.
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.