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Pierpaolo Di Carlo, Jeff Good, and Rachel Ojong Diba

The pervasiveness of multilingualism throughout the African continent has led it to be viewed as Africa’s “lingua franca.” Nevertheless, sociolinguistic research on this topic has concentrated mostly on urbanized areas, even though the majority of Africans still live in rural regions, and rural multilingualism is clearly of much older provenance than its urban counterpart. In urban domains, individual language repertoires are dominated by the interplay between European ex-colonial languages, African lingua francas, and local languages, and language ideologies emphasize the ordering of languages in a hierarchy that is tied to social status. The situation in rural areas is clearly distinct, though it has yet to be thoroughly investigated. Early work on language use in rural Africa tended to background the presence of multilingualism and was dominated by an approach that viewed each community (or “tribe”) as having its own language. Thanks to the progressive adoption of ethnographic methods of inquiry, facilitated by language documentation research especially since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been possible to more effectively study areas of high linguistic diversity in West and Central Africa which demonstrate that multilingualism plays an integral role in structuring social relations. Available case studies document the presence of individuals with linguistic repertoires that are primarily oriented around local languages, ideologies, and practices and that do not clearly fit with what is known from urban environments. The most important theme that emerges from this work is the extent to which rural multilingualism is linked to the specific dynamics holding among communities that are near to each other rather than being a reflection of a more general, externally imposed value system. While this result makes it difficult to characterize rural multilingualism as a single, coherent phenomenon, it does point to the utility of a shared toolkit of research strategies for exploring it in more detail. In particular, ethnographic methods are required in order to ascertain the major local social divisions which language choice both reflects and constructs in these areas, and it is additionally important to focus on how individual repertoires are tied to specific life histories rather than to assume that groupings that are salient to the outside researcher (e.g., “villages” or “compounds”) are the relevant units of analysis. Finally, investigation of multilingualism in rural Africa is not only valuable for what it reveals about social dynamics on the continent, but it also seems likely to yield important insights for the study of sociolinguistics more broadly.


As elsewhere in the world, languages in Africa are endangered. The estimates for language loss on a world scale likely hold for Africa as well. Although the particular group of factors at work in Africa may be unique, they come from a well-established inventory familiar elsewhere. The forces reducing African language diversity come from the combination of a set of macro socioeconomic factors and historical events, such as colonization and globalization, coupled with local factors such as military conquest and misguided government policies. Simple demographic factors, such as number of speakers, are also important: the less widely spoken languages are more severely threatened than are those spoken more widely. The shift from African languages is to both European languages and the more widely spoken languages on the continent. Shifts also occur to localized or appropriated versions of the two. Climatic factors, most notably global warming, have played and will continue to play a role as well; the correlation between biological and linguistic diversity has often been remarked. For example, with the growth of plantation economies and the destruction of rain forests, there is a concomitant reduction in linguistic diversity.