Brock linguist studies richness of African languages

From day one, Jean Ntakirutimana consistently spoke to his two daughters in the language of his birthplace, Burundi.

The Brock University linguist read them bedtime stories from the African country and regularly conversed with the girls. They would answer back in French, English and Kirundi while growing up in Quebec and Ontario.

“My daughters are a living example of how important and valuable a mother tongue can be,” says Ntakirutimana, adding that his daughters, now adults, often express how gratified they are to be able to speak, read and fairly write Kirundi.

But it’s not just fatherly pride that pleases Ntakirutimana about his daughters’ comments.

“Linguists agree that, in the world, we have around 7,000 living languages,” says the Associate Professor of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures. “And every year, languages are disappearing because native speakers are not transferring the language to their children.”

Worldwide, experts estimate that 1,500 known languages will disappear by the end of this century. Most of these are Indigenous languages.

According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, sub-Saharan Africa is home to about one-third — or around 2,000 — of the world’s languages. Up to 10 per cent of these languages are expected to be extinct within 100 years.

Ntakirutimana says this a “big loss for humanity” as a language is an intergenerational “database of knowledge.”

“Each culture has a way of understanding, and expressing, the world around them: the fauna, flora, the people — everything,” he says. “We learn how to interact with the environment around us, how to maintain and take care of it, and how that environment can be beneficial for us.”

Ntakirutimana notes that maps showing endangered ecosystems line up with maps where languages are in various stages of becoming extinct, processes he sees as being connected.

For instance, the Kirundi word for the month of April is Ndamukiza, which loosely means “greet the neighbors for me because I cannot cross the river to come say hi to them” because the rivers were overflowing due to the rainy season, says Ntakirutimana.

“Nowadays, the river overflows at different times of the year, so the meaning of the month has been completely lost. Are we going to change the names of the months in the coming years? I don’t know. Maybe.”

Like other areas of the world, Africa’s colonial history set the stage for language disappearance, with globalization continuing the trend. The languages of colonial powers took precedence over the Indigenous languages of colonized regions.

These dominant languages also introduced concepts foreign to the area. Ntakirutimana recalls being taught in elementary school about the four seasons in French (printemps, été, automne and hiver), concepts he couldn’t grasp well because Burundi has only a rainy and a dry season.

“I was puzzled even more when my textbooks wrongly associated Burundi’s dry season ici with l’été, summer, a rather wet season in the northern hemisphere, with rain showers, thunderstorms and hailstorms,” he says.

As countries became independent, constitutions, laws and other official communications were delivered in the dominant foreign language. Many countries also adapted an African language most people in the country or region speak. Some African countries can have hundreds of languages. Burundi’s official languages are Kirundi and French.

Ntakirutimana speaks Kirundi, French, English, Kiswahili, which is spoken across central and eastern Africa, and Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s official languages.

Despite the challenges, he sees signs of a linguistic revival in Africa and elsewhere. Communications technologies are evolving and increasingly connecting people who speak the same language, he says.

And new languages are evolving, especially among youth. Ntakirutimana points to the example of Nouchi in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan, which began as slang but developed into a language with its own distinct grammar.

Ntakirutimana urges other parents to follow his example of propagating mother languages.

“I tell members of immigrant communities here to teach their children their language because I know not everybody understands the importance of the mother tongue,” he says. “Yes, kids need to adapt to the environment where they live, but kids can learn any language you teach them. They will thank you for it later.”

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