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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid