By Kamto Nzelu, MA Linguistics
The removal of the BA African Studies from the undergraduate programmes continues to cause outrage within the student body, not to mention the decrease of curriculum material involving Afrika and the Afrikan diaspora. This is especially detrimental for students of African heritage hoping to come to SOAS and find a decolonised curriculum. Indeed, ‘Revitalising Endangered Languages: A Practical Guide’ links knowledge of one’s heritage language to healthier self-esteem and higher academic achievement in general. This is one of the most effective ways to reverse the legacy of trauma from (colonial) Africa.
Prospects of additions to the African language programmes at SOAS will hopefully improve the academic achievement of students. SOAS currently offers language options and degree programmes in Swahili, Zulu, Amharic and Somali. Indeed, partnerships with East African universities in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi enable the continuation of the SOAS’ Swahili programme. Unfortunately, BA Hausa was recently discontinued at SOAS after Professor Phil Jaggar passed away in February 2023. However, there are new projects of adding Hausa (and Yoruba) programmes to the list, as Dr Carmen McCain, Lecturer in African Studies, is travelling to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to establish ties to West Africa.
Building strong partnerships with African universities is key to re-establishing the richness of the SOAS’ African Studies department. Currently, the most viable option is distance learning, as SOAS students will be taught by native speakers. One success story from the 2021/22 academic year was the Swahili lectures delivered by the University of Kenyatta, Kenya. During Lockdown, distance learning replaced the year-abroad element of language degree programmes.
Causes of language loss at SOAS include pressures on new graduates to convert their education into earnings and the government cuts made by the coalition government in 2010/11. African language courses were offered at SOAS and UCL when they won a £2 million grant for language courses in 2005. Secondary school language programmes such as Arabic have few training routes for teachers, meaning European language lessons are typically the only options on the table.
Successful heritage language courses have been shown to be more effective than directly preaching higher education, healthy diets or active lifestyles. Real-world examples include Maori communities in New Zealand and First Nation communities in Canada.
According to The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, there are almost 7000 languages spoken worldwide and approximately 30% of them are African. The typical African country is home to many different languages, each corresponding to a specific ethnic group.
The African economic superpowers are Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. These countries are relatively well-developed and have higher internet speeds. Nigeria is the planned host for similar distance learning programmes in the future after the success of the Swahili programme.
“However, investments in heritage language education would otherwise be spent on the NHS and preventable health issues – meaning such education is capable of paying for itself.”
For partnerships with African universities to be successful, they must be equitable. Reversing the current apartheid in academia is an ongoing challenge for any African Studies department. The University of Ghent, Belgium, has a strong Lingala (Congolese) language department, but due to government cuts, SOAS could not give anything in return to make the exchange equitable. Currently, SOAS offers just one African literature module.
Increasing pressure to convert higher education into earnings meant that programmes whose classes include less than 20 students were discontinued. However, investments in heritage language education would otherwise be spent on the NHS and preventable health issues – meaning such education is capable of paying for itself. Furthermore, the majority of graduate employers are ‘degree agnostic’, meaning most employers will recruit graduates with degrees in any discipline.
Any African Studies department aims to build strong partnerships with African universities. Perhaps more importantly, this will cut the cost of preventable health issues in the UK.