Sub-Saharan Africa consists of countries that are either fully or partially south of the Sahara Desert. It is one of the most linguistically rich areas in the world, with over 2,000 living languages and six of the top ten most linguistically diverse countries located in the region. (Lewis et al, 2013). On average, “at least 40 different languages are spoken in each African country” (Wolff, 2010, p. 4). African languages are often divided into four main language families: Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan. The Niger-Congo family is the largest, containing over 1,000 languages (Lewis et al, 2013).
The language education policies that exist today in Sub-Saharan Africa have been heavily influenced by their colonial history. In general, British and Belgian colonies initiated policies that supported the use of African languages for teaching. In contrast, French and Portuguese colonies discouraged the use of African languages, preferring to use the colonial language as the primary language of instruction. Today, the majority of countries that include African languages in schooling in some form are former British and Belgian colonies, while in former French and Portuguese colonies “the use of African languages as media of instruction is…either to be found in pilot projects or as a result of radical innovation in educational language policy” (Bamgbose, 2004).
Another factor that influences current language education policy in Sub-Saharan Africa is globalization, in particular the spread of English. Writing about African linguistic rights, Gandalfo writes, “The demand for knowledge and proficiency of dominant European languages and English are exerted as a result of external pressures from intergovernmental organizations (IGO’s) such as the World Bank and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as transnational corporations” (p. 321). Internally, parents and teachers also tend to favor education in European languages because they believe that mastery of these dominant languages will allow their children access to more economic and political opportunities. Additionally, “in post-independence Africa members of the elite continue to hold national leadership roles, with a vested interest in maintaining the educational conditions which brought about their leadership” (Trudell, 2007, p. 554). These educational conditions do not include African languages.
It is common across Sub-Saharan Africa for governments to grant official recognition of certain African languages as “national languages” or, in some instances, “official languages”. The distinction between a “national language” and an “official language” varies by context, but in general an “official language” is used by the government for administrative purposes, while a “national language” is either spoken by a significant number of people in the country or, in some cases, is an indigenous language that is spoken by a smaller number of people. While recognition of a language as a “national language” is important, especially for less widely spoken languages, it often does not translate into official administrative use of the language and is therefore more of a symbolic gesture by the government. For example, Banda (2009) writes, “in Zambia, seven regional languages and in South Africa 11 regional languages have national or official status, but English has retained its position as the main language of education, government and business” (p. 2). It is important, then, that one does not conflate official language policy with actual implementation.