Africa Day began on May 25, 1963, to mark the beginning of the Organization of African Unity, or OAU. More than 50 years later, the OAU has become the African Union, and while it’s still a day to celebrate unity among the continent’s many countries, Africa Day is also a time to acknowledge its remarkable range of languages and the need for translation.
Nearly one-third of the languages spoken in the world are spoken in Africa, according to Harvard University. Most of them are, indeed, oral languages only (some are also whistled across vast expanses). Just how many languages does Africa speak? Estimates vary, but the high end of the range puts the number at 2,000. Fewer than 100 of these are spoken by a million people or more; for some languages, the number of speakers is only in the hundreds.
African languages falls into four groups: Afro-Asiatic (northern Africa); Nilo-Saharian (central and eastern Africa); Niger-Saharian, or Niger-Congo (western, central and southeast Africa); and Khoisan (southern Africa).
It is in the Niger-Saharian/Niger-Congo grouping that the linguistic diversity explodes: between 1,350 and 1,650 languages, according to Harvard.
Colonial Languages Counted among Official
The salmagundi of languages in Africa points to another linguistic aspect, namely that of countries’ official languages. Within the African Union, all African languages are recognized as official. But even though the AU’s Africa Day is about unity, Africa’s languages speak to another, more fractious issue—that of colonial languages, in particular English, French, and Portuguese.
For a number of African countries, one of these languages is still considered its official language. Yet some maintain that these official languages are often spoken by a relatively small percentage of the country’s people, and usually only those in urban centers.
One exception to this is South Africa, which recognizes 11 languages as official—Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga— but not one of them is a colonial language.
Given the preponderance of languages, translation and localization services in Africa assume a critical role. In a survey run by Common Sense Advisory and Translators without Borders for African translators, nearly 95 percent of respondents felt that having access to information in local languages would have a significant and positive impact on health issues. More than 97 percent felt such access would help people understand their legal rights. They saw professional interpretation and translation services as having the power to correct information inequality and fuel a concurrent rise in socioeconomic development throughout the continent.
Africa Day is a powerful reminder that language is both local and global, and how those languages are used—in law, in commerce, in international relations and in cyberspace—can make worlds of difference.