Language Policy and Development: Lost in Translation

Language is one of the most neglected areas in the development field. It barely registers on any agenda to help poor countries despite its importance to a number of crucial areas and it being a barrier to progress in many fragile states. Why is this?

Language is how individuals communicate, acquire knowledge, and work with others. It is how societies pass on culture and institutions, import new ideas and technology, and forge links among members. It can unite as well as divide, act as an instrument of empowerment as well as a barrier to advancement, and influence how societies evolve.

Language Policy in Less Developed Countries

In the least developed countries, language policy should have two basic aims:

1) Maximize the ability of a population to acquire knowledge so as to increase education levels and productivity;

2) Maximize the cohesion of a population so as to increase its ability to cooperate to promote national development.

These are among the most important issues facing fragile states, which are typically plagued by social divisions and low education levels.

Yet, many countries have policies that work against both these aims. By using an official—European—language as the basis of education and government, they entrench elites in power, and reduce the ability of the general population to acquire knowledge. Half a century after colonialism ended in Africa, for instance, English, French, and Portuguese still matter much more than African languages in most countries even though they are not well spoken by the rural population and urban underclass, which consists of the majority of people. The disadvantages the poor face directly contribute to the stark inequities and social divisions that plague such countries.

The Disconnect Between Language and People

Such policies hold back whole countries by undermining indigenous cultures and knowledge, and forcing people to become dependent on imported institutions, language, and concepts that they are unfamiliar with. As Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society in Cape Town, argued in a Background Paper for the 2004 Human Development Report, it is in local languages that

Africans display their core abilities and creativity within their environments. . . . These languages represent the socio-cultural and historical repositories of the overall cultural patterns and usages of African people. In other words, African languages are today possibly the most crucial factor in the propagation and development of culture, science and technology based on known and historical foundations rooted in the practices of the people. . . . African development projects and efforts have the greatest chance of success if innovative ideas and their communication are couched in indigenous languages, which reach the rural masses more immediately and more directly.

The disconnect between language and people is not unique to Africa. Many postcolonial states that have elites who see the poor not as a brethren to be uplifted but undesirables meant to be kept down and who see the maintenance of European institutions as crucial to preserving their rule have had similar problems. Few Latin America countries promoted indigenous languages until recently. The Pakistan elite prefers English (and Urdu) to Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, and Baluchi. Minorities—such as the Berbers and Kurds in North Africa and the Middle East—are disadvantaged whenever the dominant ethnic group suppresses their language.

A Language Strategy to Promote Development

Of course not all languages have enough speakers to be made a priority. But those with millions of speakers—such as Hausa and Punjabi—ought to play a crucial role in education and government. And an effort to harmonize languages which enjoy a high level of mutual intelligibility into a common standard (something many European countries did in the 19th century) will increase their potential for wider usage and provide economies of scale for writers, publishers, and translators.

Investing in translating and circulating important foreign books will increase the attractiveness of local languages and allow a larger number of people to access knowledge. The Arab world, for instance, needs to invest far greater resources in Arabic translations of science, technology, and literature translation.

More inclusiveness with language will create more inclusive regimes, open to more citizens, and more geared to the needs of the general population (rather than just the elites). If handled properly, it will promote social cohesion and engender greater state legitimacy. It might even improve governance by making state institutions more accessible.

In the short term, governments should make far greater use of the most important local languages. They could, for instance, use them for primary education and introduce a plan to adopt them for greater use at the regional level. In the long term, policies should seek to realize the use of these important languages at all levels of education, within parts of government, and in all areas of social life. In divided countries, there may continue to be a role for colonial languages at the national level and in some universities. But such languages should not be the dominant force in society.

India, for instance, has emphasized the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools, leading to 41 languages being used in the classroom in one place or another. States are organized according to language to maximize the use of the largest tongues. The most widely spoken local language—Hindi—has the same status as English at the national level. Media of all types—from newspapers to books to movies—proliferate in local languages. Although English plays an important role at the top of society—both advantaging the country in international competition while disadvantaging lower classes who don’t have easy access to education in it—it is not alone.

In contrast, in most of Africa (and places such as Pakistan*) it is hard to imagine a non-fluent speaker of the colonial tongue rising to an elite position in government. There are few successful novels, few advanced education opportunities, and few newspapers in African languages.

As I wrote in Fixing Fragile States:

Instead of forcing whole populations to learn foreign languages, much greater effort should be made to translate world knowledge into major indigenous tongues such as Arabic, Hausa, and Punjabi. . . . Certainly, no society that has successfully developed has depended as heavily on foreign resources, foreign political models, foreign languages, and foreign laws as fragile states typically do today.

All successful developing countries have depended on their own language and sociocultural base for development, importing Western ideas and technology as needed, and integrating these with local institutions in a hybrid manner.

Many in Africa (and elsewhere) understand this, but in contrast to places such as Indonesia, where language policy has planned a prominent role in nation building and education from early on, few countries have sought to use language policy to promote inclusive development.

Elites Stand in the Way

Elites have often stood in the way of such change, seeing it as both a practical threat to their positions in society as well as a psychological threat to their own self-image as replacements for their former colonizers. As Dr. Peter P. Ekeh, professor at the University of Buffalo, explained in his oft cited 1975 article on “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa”:

The Japanese do not strive to speak English or French as well as an Englishman and an American or as a Frenchman. They see themselves as different from them. The African bourgeois, born out of the colonial experience, is very uncomfortable with the idea of being different from his former colonizers in matters regarding education, administration, or technology. One suspects that he is unconsciously afraid that he may not be qualified to be an effective replacer of the former colonizers.

Although ethnic and religious divisions often plague postcolonial states, the gap between elites and their populations can be worse. As long as elites use their control over language policy and state institutions to entrench their position at the expense of the population, their countries are unlikely to reduce their great inequities and social divisions, unlikely to improve their governance, and unlikely to inclusively develop.


* It is worth asking whether Bangladesh’s much better record in promoting social development when compared to Pakistan has anything to do with its far greater use of a local language that is widely understood. Certainly, the greater social cohesion this has spawned has something to do with it.

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  1. Seth, Thanks for this summary of the importance of language in development and for pointing out from the start how it is a factor neglected in development (esp. in Africa). There has been a gradual attention to it in formal education, but not much in other fields.

    I once submitted comments on a report in agriculture & development in Africa in which I pointed out in numerous contexts how language was a factor (quality of extension, gender equity, local learning & sharing, etc.), but almost all were ignored. You can't do effective work in a multilingual environment by relying uniquely on what locally may be a 2nd or 3rd language for a few, and without constructive approaches to using locally dominant languages.

    By the way, I think that English, French, and Portuguese are more appropriately referred to as "official" languages in Africa (as appropriate per country) rather than "national" languages. Many countries use the latter term for one or more African languages. Yes an official language is designated for nationwide use, so the terminology is tricky, but one loses nothing by referring to the ELWCs ("Europhone languages of wider communication) by their legal role (i.e., "official").


    • Good example and point. I will make the change you recommend. If you have any practical suggestions on how such attitudes can be combated, please recommend them to our audience.

  2. Saying "Elites stand in the way" is a gross oversimplification. People want to learn the languages that will be most useful to them. Parents want the same for their children. People know globally that there are more opportunities for them if they speak English or another European language.

    Schools base their teaching decisions on the same thing. In the USA for example, the question is will students benefit more from Spanish or KiSwahili? Spanish will win every time. In the USA at least these will be local decisions although many countries will make a decision about what additional languages to teach at a national level.

    The role of language in development does play a crucial role in these decisions. In Georgia, the older people are more likely to speak Russian as their second language where younger people will more likely know English. The decision is made at an economic level as people decide they can make more money learning English over Russian. At least in Georgia, Georgian isn't going away. While the people will admit to outsiders that theirs isn't the most useful to learn, they are proud of it and its history.

    I think that attitude is what others need to learn. Learning a "UN language" for a second language is great and can open doors professionally, but don't lose your own language in the process.

    • What you say makes sense in a more developed context. If people have mastered the basic skills in their own language they will often want to learn a language like English to advance further. The problem in fragile states is that poor people who have little schooling are disadvantaged by not being able to even learn the basics (as in first grade) in their own languages. And they cannot go to a government office and demand their rights because they do not speak the "national language." The rich (the elites), on the other hand, have no such barriers. They go to the best schools and can easily master both their own and the European national languages. They therefore prefer to maintain the status quo because of the advantages they get from it.

  3. However, if people learn first in their own language, the language aquisition of a foreign language improves, since they transfer knowledge from one language to another. The important thing is to make a distinction between learning a foreign language and learning in a foreign language.

  4. This is well said. The poor will do better if they can learn and work in their own language, and master a foreign language when they choose to. As things are set up now, they must learn in a foreign language and even try to live in that foreign language to gain their basic rights. And they don't have a choice in the matter.

    • Seth, thanks so much for this article. Those of us working in formal education in low-income multilingual countries have been dealing with many of these issues for a long time, but I agree with you that the field of development has been slow to give appropriate attention to language issues. I really appreciate the points you make about reaching the majority, even the urban underclass, which is often lumped as "urban" and "elite." As you imply in your points beginning "instead of forcing whole populations to learn foreign languages," there are efficient and intelligent alternatives that would not represent such a waste of resources to low-income countries. (I say "waste" because current methods of forcing this learning do not in fact result in widespread learning of foreign languages at all, but rather in unacceptably high levels of school dropout, repetition and failure, and no amount of investment in foreign languages will change this.)

      Terminology: Some of us working in multilingual education use the terms "dominant" and "non-dominant" languages to avoid using national, official, and even European (which only covers countries colonized by European powers) languages. These categories are imperfect (may seem static, don't reflect varying degrees of dominance) but they help to clarify the true nature of these languages. They help distinguish between languages that have been privileged or NOT by societies/nations/international development agencies.

      One caution to continue the discussion:
      While it is true that there are larger, more widely spoken regional languages that can be and ARE BEING used effectively, as highly respected Kwesi Kwaa Prah points out, care should be taken that privileging these languages does not replicate the exclusionary conditions created by elite/dominant languages over non-dominant ones. That is, there are more and less dominant non-dominant languages/language varieties. (Languages like Arabic have dominant and non-dominant varieties that are not mutually intelligible.) To reach the truly marginalized, decentralized approaches are needed in local languages/varieties that people actually understand and speak well.

      One last point about development:
      Ekeh's quote about African elite feeling inadequate seems to put the blame in the wrong place; this insecurity is promulgated by the constant presence of the former colonizers, who are right there speaking their mother tongues and communicating their own cultural beliefs and values as if they are the only ones. Imagine how different development projects would be if they represented true collaboration, if foreign experts more often used local languages to discuss development alternatives, and if multilingualism were treated as normal and desirable– a true talent to be nurtured and promoted locally and globally– instead of something to be erased.

      Thanks for this opportunity to dialogue!
      Carol Benson
      (On leave from Stockholm University)

  5. Carol,

    Thanks for the great comment. Your points are very illuminating, as good as a whole blog post.

    It is important to note that ignoring local peoples' own cultures is a common problem throughout the development field. Local systems for maintaining law and order, protecting property, etc. are also typically ignored just as local languages are ignored. Instead there is too much effort to replicate what has worked elsewhere (especially in developed countries with very different circumstances).

    Ideally, aid should be about helping people help themselves, as David Ellerman has pointed out. It should be collaborative and build on what people already know.

    Your last point about the Ekeh quote may be right. But from my experience elites are all too comfortable to use foreign languages to show that they are comfortable with world elites and above their own citizens. If they viewed their own cultures and fellow citizens more positively there would be greater effort to root their states in their societies–a crucial ingredient for development.


  6. This is happening on several less developed countries not just in Africa, such countries have bigger issues or problems to be solved wherein it seems like they had forgotten about education and how important it is in developing their country. This article of yours is truly worth sharing to others specially to those individuals who are planning to be a language educators.

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  7. Thanks for this article!

    It highlights many points that anyone working in language activism might do well to work on presenting evidence-based recommendations to those who would listen. The original foundation of linguistics as a science assumes wrongly that monolingualism is the norm, and this myth needs to be debunked to a vast majority for any widespread effective change to take place in not only the 'developed' world, but the rest of the of the world too. One could be surprised how many people don't realize that the world is mostly multilingual, or who do not have an awareness of how many languages are in the world vs. how many nation-states (7,000 lg vs. 200 n-s). Keep up the great work!