Presentation of the preface and annotated agenda of the Bamako 1979 meeting for readers of the Bisharat! web site. Return to Basic Documents. View the French version.

African languages


Proceedings of the meeting of experts

on the use of

the regional or subregional

African languages

as media of culture and communication

with the continent


Bamako (Mali), 18-22 June 1979







Policies for the promotion of African languages were for a long time applied only within the borders of each State, whereas in a great many cases, a language spread beyond those borders into several States.


The main object of the meeting, the proceedings of which we have the pleasure of prefacing here, was to help remedy this shortcoming by identifying these inter-African languages and their status, and by making suggestions about how co-operation could be facilitated or improved among the States concerned by the promotion of the languages which they have in common.


This publication presents to those interested the papers written for the meeting so that they can consider more deeply the discussions begun in Bamako, have a clearer idea of what the experts actually said and, above all, contributed in a practical way to the co-ordination of what is being done to promote inter-African languages in their various zones.


The first part contains the annotated agenda put to the experts, the final report of the meeting and a list of the names and addresses of participants.


The second part contains the papers submitted to the meeting, arranged in alphabetical order of authors' names.  [NB- These are not presented on the Bisharat website.]


The authors are responsible for the selection and presentation of the facts included in this publication and for the opinions expressed, which do not necessarily reflect those of Unesco.



F I R S T   P A R T


Meeting of experts on the use of the regional or subregional African languages

as media of culture and communication with the continent

Bamako (Mali), 18-22 June 1979




Convened by the Director-General in pursuance of resolution 4/01, paragraph 4074, adopted by the General Conference at its twentieth session, this meeting of experts is called upon to consider the means of encouraging effective co-operation among African States with a view to promoting the African languages spoken in two or more countries.


Given the practical nature of the objective of this meeting, namely that of drawing up specific programmes designed to bring about the effective promotion of the languages in literacy training efforts, formal education, administration and political life, only those experts directly engaged in field research, in education, in the formulation of a language policy or in the preparation and implementation of operational programmes dealing with one or more inter-African languages have been invited to attend it.


So that due account may be taken by the experts of Unesco's policy regarding African languages and of the discussions held on the subject, the following documents have been communicated to them:


-          Ten-year plan for the systematic study of oral traditions and the promotion of African languages as media of culture and as instruments of lifelong education.

-          Final report of the meeting of experts on "The transcription and harmonization of African languages", Niamey, Niger, 17-21 July 1978

-          Final report of the Symposium on the Co-ordination of Linguistic Research with a view to its application to teaching involving African languages of regional intercommunication, Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, 11-15 September 1978.


Other documentation will be placed at the disposal of the experts during the meeting.


The following agenda is proposed:


  1. Geographical scope (number of countries) and number of speakers.
  2. Status: utilization solely as a spoken language or utilization in education, literacy teaching, etc.
  3. Institutions conducting research on the language: commissions, academies or departments.
  4. Co-operation among the countries in which the language is used.
  5. Co-ordinated programme of research and publications.


Before defining the main lines of a strategy to be adopted with a view to promoting the African languages common to several countries it is necessary to take stock of the question. This was the main purpose of the contribution requested from each of the specialists invited to attend this meeting. The first working meetings might therefore be devoted to a brief presentation of the communications prepared by the experts.


1.     Geographical scope


The Niamey meeting (1978) highlighted the importance of the inter-African languages, identified a number of points which characterized them and drew up a provisional list of those languages (final report. pp. 22 to 24). During the course of their work, the experts meeting in Ouagadougou endeavoured in their turn to define more precisely the criteria adopted at Niamey to characterize inter-African languages (final report, p. 4 more especially).


Extracts from the reports of the Niamey and Ouagadougou meetings are given below:


(i) Inter-African languages (Niamey meeting)


(a) Importance of these languages:


They encourage the development of inter-African relations and so contribute to strengthening African Unity.


They act as pilot languages for all other languages of the same linguistic group or of the same geographical area in so far as the solutions adopted for them can also be applied to other, less widely spoken languages.


Moreover, they can readily benefit from the assistance of international organizations within the framework of regional projects.


(b) Possible criteria for the definition of inter-African languages:

A language may be described as "inter-African" if it:

is common to several countries;

is spoken by a large number of people;

enjoys a privileged status in certain countries.


(c) Provisional list of inter-African languages


West Africa


Fulfulde (Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, etc.)

Hausa (Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, etc.)

Kanuri (Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon)

Mandingo (Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau,  Liberia, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta)

Songhay-Zarma (Mali, Niger, Benin)

Tamashek (Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Morocco)

Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo)

Wolof (Senegal, The Gambia)


Central and East Africa


Ewondo-Fang (Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon)

Kikongo (Zaire, Angola, Congo, Gabon)

Kinyarwanda and Kirundi (Rwanda, Burundi)

Kiswahili (Tanzania. Kenya, Zai re, Uganda, Mozambique, Malawi, Comoros, Somalia, etc.)

Lingala (Zaire, Congo)

Oromo (Ethiopia, Kenya, etc.)

Sango (Central African Empire, Chad, Congo, Zaire etc.)

Somali (Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti)


Southern Africa


Tswana-Sotho (Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa)


Nguni-Xhosa-Zulu-Swati-Ndebele (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe)


Shona (Zimbabwe, Mozambique)


(ii) Inter-African languages (Ouagadougou meeting)


Prior to analysing the problems, certain experts stressed the need to define accurately what was understood by "language of regional intercommunication".


In the subsequent discussion, it was recalled that at the meeting in Niamey a number of (non-exhaustive) criteria had been adopted with respect to this question; chief among these were:


-          the sharing of the same language by two or more States;

-          the demographic weight of the language;

-          the multi-ethnic character of the language.


Some participants suggested the following additions:


-          the geographical extent of the language;

-          its frequency of use, and the fields it covers;

-          the extent to which it is suited to modern conditions;

-          its privileged status in certain countries;

-          its historical and cultural role.


It was also pointed out that the different levels of use at which a language may function should be borne in mind. Thus, a language can be:


  1. a mother tongue, spoken by few or by many, and serving as a basis for education and as a vehicle for culture;
  2. a language of communication:

a)     at the local level, in regions characterized by a complex language situation, such as Casamance in the Republic of Senegal;

b)     at the national level, like Wolof in Senegal or Amharic in Ethiopia, etc.;

  1. an inter-African language:

a)     at regional and subregional level, as in the case of about ten languages, each of which is spoken by more than ten million people in two or more African countries (e.g. Mandingo and Lingala);

b)     at regional level, but with a potential continental role, as in the case of Hausa and Kiswahili, which are spoken by over 20 million people.


With a view to pursuing the work begun at Niamey and Ouagadougou, the experts are invited:


-         to complete the provisional list of inter-African language if necessary;

-         to indicate, as far as possible, the number of speakers of each inter-African language and the percentage of speakers in the population of each country.


2. Status


According to the linguistic policies of the countries involved, the following situations may obtain in regard to the use of any single inter-African language. It may be used solely as a spoken language or at the stage of description or establishment of alphabets; in all activities in the life of the nation; or sometimes in primary education, literacy work and radio broadcasts. It often happens that the policy adopted for a language in one State may also become established in practice in other States in which this language is spoken although no official decision has been taken by the competent authorities.


The experts are invited to take stock of the situation regarding the inter-African languages within their competence or in the area with which they are most familiar. They will thus be able to identify a typology of the policies adopted for each language, the extent of its utilization in the different States and the importance of the material produced in that language. They will also consider the position of the language in relation to other languages in the country of use. It may be a vehicular language, a majority or minority language, a language with privileged status, etc. It may be used only by its native speakers, or may be imposed upon other groups. This is especially frequent in urban areas in which one single African language tends to dominate.


Moreover, the experts may identify the obstacles which, in certain States may have hindered or, on the contrary, encouraged the promotion of the various inter-African languages.


They will also define the importance of the existing material in each country for the language studied: teaching materials, syllabaries, dictionaries, literary works, administrative, legal and political texts, newspapers, magazines, etc.


3. Institutions conducting research on the language


In an effort to collect authoritative advice such as will aid them with linguistic policy, many States have set up national language commissions, research centres, linguistic departments and academies.


The experts are invited to establish, for each inter-African language, an inventory of the institutional infrastructures in the different countries. They will also list the existing technical infrastructures (printing works. equipment etc.).


4. Co-operation between countries in which the language in question is used


The invaluable role of the exchange of information and experience in the promotion of the African languages has been repeatedly stressed in many meetings of experts and many specialized studies. This is even more obvious for languages of the same family, and the same languages spoken in different countries. In fact what is only experimental in one country may have reached a highly advanced stage in another. A language may be a minority language in one country yet a majority language in the next. Several countries may thus benefit from the progress and investments made by one country in connection with a language which is common to them all.


In view of their knowledge of the context in which each language develops in the different countries concerned, the experts are invited to examine the relationship between the institutions of the various countries interested in promoting the same language. It would also be useful to have details of the role played by the regional or subregional institutions in the dissemination of the information.


5. Co-ordinated programme of research and publications


This agenda item could be discussed in two stages:


(a) The devising of an overall scheme of co-operation between States with a view to promoting their common languages


On the basis of the information received during the statements on items 1 to 4 of the agenda, and which in general refer to one single inter-African language or to inter-African languages used in one specific area, the experts will try to establish an ideal scheme for co-operation with a view to the promotion of inter-African languages throughout the continent. This scheme will be developed from an in-depth analysis of the different situations described during the discussion of items 1 to 4, and of the shortfalls, difficulties, favourable circumstances or failures noted. The experts will base their study mainly on the results and recommendations of the meetings in Niamey and Ouagadougou.


(b) Preparation of a practical programme for the inter-African languages selected


Whereas in the previous case the aim was to work out a virtually theoretical model, here the experts are invited to draw up as practical a programme as possible which will be capable of providing a common strategy to the various countries interested in the promotion of a common language. In their work the experts will necessarily take into account the situations specific to each inter-African language studied. They will indicate, for example, the number of countries concerned, the linguistic policies adopted by each country, the status of the language in each country, the existing institutional and technical infrastructures, and co­operation between the countries involved, etc. They will also take into account the favourable climate or the obstacles encountered by each language both at individual country level and at the level of the different countries concerned.


Experts should bear the following ideas in mind throughout the discussions:


(i) The holding of a meeting on languages common to several States in no way implies that the languages limited to any single State should be considered as negligible. It remains understood that each language and each culture must be promoted.


(ii) A language should always be considered in its dual capacity as a means of communication on the one hand and a vector of culture on the other. In this sense, to promote a language amounts to encouraging communication between the peoples speaking that language and, at the same time, fostering the cultural development of those same peoples.


Thanks to Aboubacar Mahamane of CELHTO in Niamey for help with obtaining a copy of African languages: Proceedings of the meeting of experts on the use of the regional or subregional African languages as media of culture and communication with the continent, Bamako (Mali), 18-22 June 1979. Paris: UNESCO, 1981, from which selections are reproduced here. Formatting by DZO.

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