Language in Development Research in 21st Century Africa

by Kitula King’ei


Africa’s development in the next millennium must be research driven. Only socio-cultural and economic investigation can provide the vital data necessary to arrive at sound, well-informed policies governing development for all facets of society. Given that most of Africa remains rural and illiterate, the issue of which language is to be a medium of research is especially crucial. Verbal communication is often the only option that trained researchers have to obtain information and attain their research goals. Indeed, this is the only method through which scientists and administrators may seek to influence social or collective behaviour and direct it toward development objectives. This paper contends, therefore, that development research in Africa has failed to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the majority, mainly because development theory and practice have failed to exploit local languages as media for research and development work. Although, as a result of colonialism, European languages are part and parcel of Africa’s heritage, these languages remain foreign for the majority of ordinary people, for whom development is intended.

Language is never simply a neutral instrument to convey meaning, but rather a culturally subjective system reflecting peoples’ worldview. Language symbolizes the common beliefs and psychological make-up of the community from which it springs (1). For Africa, the use of language in social research and policy must consider the mobilization of human resources for development. No meaningful change can occur without the full participation of the masses. The importance of speaking to people in their own languages cannot be over-stressed.

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