The Decline of African Languages at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The University of Illinois used to be one of the best universities for learning African languages. Emeritus professor of Linguistics Eyamba Bokamba would always say, “here in Illinois we offer African languages from A to Z, Arabic to Zulu.” Unfortunately, African languages offerings have been declining steadily in the past decade. As an instructor for Wolof and student of Swahili at the U of I, I was concerned and undertook an ethnographic study among students and instructors of Wolof and Swahili at Illinois to understand what led to the decline of African languages such as Lingala, Isizulu, Bambana, etc. I interviewed current Wolof and Swahili students to understand their motivations for taking African language classes. I also interviewed a former African-language instructor and two administrative personnel to understand the structural difficulties faced in keeping African languages. Finally, I observed Swahili classes to gauge student engagement.

When I examined my data for reasons behind the decline, I found three main explanations: structural/ budget issues, political reasons, and lack of student engagement with Africa. However, these reasons are complex and intertwined. Why is Swahili currently the only strong language in terms of enrollment, with Wolof on the verge of dying out like Bambana, Lingala, and Zulu? For one participant, this is due to structural and political realities, and to the lack of student engagement with the continent. Structurally, as budgets were being cut during these years of neoliberal university management, many departments focused only on languages that were strong in numbers. They noted, “Any language that is not bringing in money is considered a burden.”

Other participants agreed, “… the University does not adequately invest in languages that do not bring in much revenue.” The participant cited earlier further posited that “relevant departments only want to own and support Arabic and Swahili, and not Wolof.” There is normally a tussle between the Department of Linguistics and the Center for African Studies (CAS) regarding who should fund Wolof instruction. This is also attested to by the omission of Wolof on the department’s website. The department clearly regards Swahili and Arabic as the only valuable African languages. It’s a problem produced by a combination of funding and structural de-prioritization.

Screenshot of the Department of Linguistics Fall, 2020 course list on its website. Among African languages, it lists only Arabic and Swahili, but not Wolof

On a departmental level, there is also a lack of support for African languages. My interviewee told me that “if you do not have a faculty member at the table fighting for a language, then there is not much you can do.” There are only two Africanists in the Department of Linguistics, one being the Director of Sub-Saharan Languages and the Coordinator of the Swahili program, and the other an anthropologist. Notably, Swahili is the only African language that has a language coordinator at the department, one of the reasons why Swahili’s presence is stronger at the University.

One participant claims that the reason for the decline in African languages is also political. After the September 11 attacks, the number of US students who took Arabic increased exponentially, as more students took an interest in the Middle East and Arab culture in general. Although Arabic is also listed as an African language, there is a disconnect, as all Arabic instructors are usually from predominantly Arab-speaking countries outside the continent. Moreover, Swahili is the only African language regularly offered other than Arabic.  Few instructors are hired to teach African languages; instead, the university relies on graduate students from the continent.

National trends apart from 9/11 also affect student attitudes. The Center for African Studies is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. When it was founded in 1970, American interest in the continent was high, both because of the global decolonization movement and the impact of the Civil Rights movement in the US. In the ’90s, many African American students turned to Wolof as opposed to Arabic and Swahili because of heritage connections, one interviewee stated when talking about gaining perspectives from and engagement with the continent. During the ’90s, students demanded instructors who looked like them and knew the culture. This corresponds to the era when African Studies was prominent. The students, mostly African American, argued that they cared about the indigeneity of the language instructor and the “cultural baggage” they carried more than their linguistic skills. “They cared more about learning the culture through language acquisition than learning about some syntax,” stated the interviewee.

The reality is that heritage is more important than ever, as is the need for African-language skills in the US. African languages are among the top ten fastest-growing languages spoken at home in the US. Combined, they represent 47 percent of the fastest-growing languages in the US. During the COVID-19 crisis there have been many communities which cannot adequately receive appropriate information about the pandemic due to language barriers. There are roughly 25 million people in the US who speak no or limited English, and language access has been a long-simmering problem in medical offices, hospitals, and the public health field at large. Non-English-speaking patients with COVID-19 can be subject to delays and miscalculations in health care facilities, in part because physicians struggle to communicate with them. If universities prioritize diversifying languages, especially African languages, such problems can be reduced.

Finally, in the academic world, it is imperative that scholars be conversant with the languages of the communities they study. Unfortunately, many Africanist scholars do not speak the languages of Africa. In addition, eliminating the opportunity to introduce the languages of these regions during formative times in a student’s education means there may be fewer academics focusing on the region in the future.

Support for African-language study is important for many reasons. It contributes to the diversity of the university’s mission in preparing students for a complex world. It would help address the needs of the growing African-language-speaking population in the US, and increasing the breadth of African languages would be beneficial to the broader field of African Studies. The University therefore should try to get back its status of being a strong institution for African languages.

Fatou Jobe is a master’s student in African Studies at UIUC. Her research aims to highlight the environmental, economic, and political impact of global aquaculture on local communities. She plans to pursue a PhD to further her study of fishmeal factories in West Africa.

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