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The purpose of the present research is to evaluate the ethnolinguistic vitality and ethnolinguistic sustainability of the Ngomba, Ngiemboon and Ngombale communities, as minority ethnic communities using a framework, constructed by us from a critical analysis of existing models. It was justified by the fact that exisiting models of language vitality and endangerment assessments are sometimes too general or less accurate for the assessment of the ethnolinguistic vitality of minority ethnic groups. Moreover, studies by Ehala (2010, 2013, 2014) and Lewis (2011) which emphasise the notion of sustainability as compared to vitality have not been widely implemented and investigated. Therefore, the present research has placed ethnicity as well as the notion of ecology at the centre of the study of ethnolinguistic vitality. Furthermore, in a globalisation context, the sustainability of an ethnic community depends on the capacity of the community to mitigate the negative impact of external factors. The framework follows the tradition of ethnolinguistic vitality model pioneered by Giles et al (1977). The approach developed as model for this thesis is inspired by the works of Ehala (2010, 2011, 2014) and Landweer (2000, 2006, 2012). At the level of

the organisation of the indicators, Landweer (2000, 2006, 2012) and UNESCO (2003, 2012) are used as model design scheme and a framework is suggested for ethnolinguistic vitality and ethnolinguistic sustainability assessment made up of fifteen indicators organised around three major subgroups. A mix method using both qualitative and quantitative research approaches are used to collect quality data, capable of providing answers to the research questions and achieving the research objectives. The data collected and the assessment of the reference communities lead to determining their level of vitality as well as sustainability using indexes.

The findings are that the three communities have medium ethnolinguistic vitality but low ethnolinguistic sustainability. The Ngomba and Ngombale vitality indexes stand as 23/40, while that of the Ngiemboon is 26/40. The ethnolinguistic sustainability indexes of the three communities are 40/75, 40/75, and 50/75 for the Ngomba, Ngombale and Ngiemboon communities respectively, showing that the Ngiemboon group is the most vital and most sustainable of the three communities. However, this points low ethnolinguistic sustainability for the three ethnic groups. Following a SWOT analysis of the situation, a sustainability planning framework based on decentralisation as opportunity is proposed to improve the current situation. The analysis of findings lead to recommendations for developing increased vitality and sustainability for these ethnolinguistic communities.



1.0  Introduction


The purpose of this chapter is to present the overall work, more specifically, the background of the issues which leads to the statement of the problem that has motivated the work, and then to the goal of the study. The general objective is then broken up into different specific objectives that constitute the different focus points of the study. Research questions are formulated, followed by research hypotheses, both meant to drive the research to ensure the achievement of the goal and specific objectives. The significance, the motivation and the thesis outline summary then conclude the chapter.

1.1  Background to the Research


Language shift and loss is today a matter of global concern. Also of great concern today is the issue of loss of cultural diversity and traditional indigenous knowledge as a result of globalisation.


Krauss (1992; 1997) predicted that by the end of the current century, more than half of the world’s languages would go extinct. Using the best available sources of that time, that is, the 11th edition of Ethnologue (Grimes 1988), (Krauss (op. cit.)) evaluated the global linguistic situation and estimated that only 10% of languages stood a chance of surviving in the long term; up to 50% might be moribund, and the remainder in danger of becoming moribund by the end of last century. He estimated in that year that already well over 400 of the total of 6,000 languages were close to extinction, with only a few elderly speakers left. Worse, probably 3,000 or so others were also considered endangered. Simmons and Lewis (2013) suggested that Krauss’ conclusion about the future demise of world languages was biased.


The criteria used by Krauss (1992) for classifying languages were the following: (a) Safe: if the language is spoken by all generations. The intergenerational transmission of the language is uninterrupted. (b) Stable yet threatened if the language is spoken in most contexts by all generations with unbroken transmission, although multilingualism in the native language and one or more dominant languages has taken over certain contexts. (c) Vulnerable if most children or families of a particular community speak their parental language as a first language, even if only in the home. (d) Definitely endangered if the language is no longer learned as the mother tongue or taught in the home. The youngest speakers are of the parental generation. (e) Severely endangered if the language is spoken


only by grandparents and older generations; the parental generation may still understand it but will not pass it on to their children. (f) Critically endangered if the youngest speakers are of the great-grandparents’ generation, and the language is not used every day. These older people may only partially remember it and have no partners for communication. (g) Extinct if no one speaks or remembers the language. Of all the categories, this last one has become the most controversial. As it can be noted, the main criterion for language classification used by Krauss (1992) was mainly trends in intergenerational transmission of the language.


Although Krauss (1992, 1997)’s appeal was the very first official address on the issue of language endangerment, it did just reveal something that had been going on, but had ignored or unnoticed. Therefore, his alarming prognoses about the potential demise of 90% of the world languages raised awareness on the urgency to document and preserve the world’s linguistic diversity.

As a result of his call, linguists around the world promptly reacted, embarking on research to try to gain more insight into the phenomenon and even to attempt solutions to solve the matter and to reverse the situation. Many projects at the global as well as regional and individual level began to crop up.


In 1993 probably in reaction to Krauss’ appeal, the United Nations adopted the “Endangered Languages Project” including the “Red Book of Endangered Languages.” In 1995 an International Clearing House for Endangered Languages was inaugurated at the University of Tokyo. That same year, an Endangered Language Fund was set up in the USA. Commenting the global reaction, Crystal (2000) remarked that “There has never been such a universal upsurge of professional linguistic concern” (Crystal 2000: preface).


The UNESCO, the specialised UN organ in charge of language and cultural issues elaborated a constitution whose basic principle includes the maintenance and perpetuation of language diversity as it seeks:

to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world without distinction of race, sex, language, religion, by the Charter of the United Nations (UNESCO Constitution Article 1). “Based on this principle, UNESCO has developed programs aimed at promoting languages as instruments of education and culture, and as significant means through which to participate in national life” (Noriko Aikawa, 2001: 13).


Among these programs was the project “The Red Book of Languages in Danger of Disappearing” whose purpose was:

to systematically gather information on endangered languages (including their status and the degree of urgency for undertaking research); to strengthen research and the collection of materials relating to endangered languages for which little or no such activities have been undertaken to date; to undertake activities aiming to establish a world-wide project committee and a network of regional centres as focal points for large areas on the basis of existing contacts; and to encourage publication of materials and the results of studies on endangered languages. (Noriko Aikawa, 2001: 13).


Alongside organisations, many linguists have carried out research on the phenomenon in a bid to contribute to a better understanding of it as well as how to reverse the situation (Crystal 2000; Dalby 2003; Grenoble and Whaley 1998, 2006; Harrison 2007; Krauss 1992; Nettle and Romaine 2000; Grenoble and Whaley 2006; Romaine 2006b) and many others.

Some macro studies, alongside micro studies have been carried out on world’s languages, either at the global level, or at regional, continental and national levels (Crystal 2000, Lewis 2005, Brenzinger 2007, Batibo 2005, Wurm 2004,).

In the same vein, Ethnologue has been providing update about the evolution of the phenomenon through its quadrennial publication: (Grimes 2000, Gordon 2005, Lewis 2009, Lewis et al 2013).


In addition, and in order to better capture the phenomenon, many theories have been developed to assess the degree of endangerment and vitality of world’s languages in order to better apprehend what can be done to save or preserve them (UNESCO 2003, Fishman 1992, Lewis and Simmons 2010, Landweer 2000, 2006). Other theories and field works have been implemented in attempts to revise and revitalise dead or dying languages around the world (Yamamoto 1998, Wurm 2007).


Today, numerous publications on the topic have been produced and awareness of the potential for the catastrophic loss of linguistic diversity has reached new heights sparking considerable interest not only among scholars and practitioners but among the broader public as well. Linguists, anthropologists, language activists, and speaker communities themselves have become increasingly focused on the issue of language endangerment.


Quite a lot is now known about the state of world languages now, thanks to ongoing research. Considering the amount of literature that has been produced on the topic in the past twenty years, Haboud & Ostler (2011) have concluded that “Language endangerment is now accepted as an important issue of our times…” (Haboud & Ostler 2011:vi).


As will be seen from the following data, the efforts by the linguists, and language activists, have contributed a great deal to the knowledge of the state of languages around the world. Harmon and Loh (2010) have built on methods used in ecology for quantifying biodiversity to develop an Index of Linguistic Diversity. Using time-series population data from a sample of 1,500 languages worldwide, they have found that global linguistic diversity has declined 20% over the period 1970–2005.


The most recent and most comprehensive research and evaluation of the linguistic situation comes from the Ethnologue 2013 (Lewis et al 2013) and the work by Simmons and Lewis (2013) entitled: World Language in Crisis, a twenty-year update. According to Simmons and Lewis (2013) report, many languages still thrive, especially in Africa and in the Pacific. Using their framework called EGIDS (2010), Simmons and Lewis (2013) have for the first time, provided vitality estimates for all the world’s languages. Their finding is that out of 7,103 living languages (EGIDS 0–9), 1,360 (or 19%) are not being learned by children (EGIDS 7–9).

Indeed, Lewis et al (2013) current data indicate that 78% (207 out of 266) of the languages of Northern America are either already extinct or not being learned by children (EGIDS 7– 10), as are 85% (329 of 388) in Australia and New Zealand. Three other regions are approaching the 50% level: South America (48%, 242 of 521), Polynesia (47%, 9 of 19),

and Western Asia (41%, 38 of 93).


What is worth noting about the issue is that a comparison is made of the incidence of language endangerment in each part of the world. According to Simmons and Lewis(op.cit), for the other 16 regions in the world, the proportion of languages that are already extinct or not being learned by children (EGIDS 7–10) ranges from 30% in Eastern Europe (37 of 122) down to 8% in Eastern Africa (31 of 390) and Western Africa (69 of 899). The language ecologies in these other parts of the world are considerably different from the situations in the Americas and Australia.

In conclusion, Simmons and Lewis (op.cit) ranked the regions of the world from the most affected by language endangerment to the least affected. In this listing, Northern America assumes the bottom position with only 7% vital languages. Then come Australia and New Zealand (9%) and South America (35%). These three regions also have the highest percentages of dead and dying languages (61%, 82%, and 39%, respectively).

Topping the list as the part of the world least impacted by language endangerment is sub- Saharan Africa in which the three regions of Western, Eastern and Middle Africa all have


more than 80% of their languages in the vital category. Interestingly Melanesia (which ranked fifth in terms of most dead and dying languages) ranks sixth in this list with 76% vital languages, due to the large number of vital languages in Papua New Guinea.

Their report makes it clear that the language endangerment story is very different in different parts of the world. In Australia and the Americas, the crisis has been running its course with devastating consequences, while in sub-Saharan Africa it has yet to hit the radar screen as a crisis (Lewis etal 2013). Throughout Asia, Europe, and other regions of the Pacific the situation is between these extremes, but tends much more toward the vital than the dying.


Their findings show that Krauss’ estimate in 1992 that 50% of languages were doomed or dying was too dire. Krauss’ predictions certainly used data of those regions where language shift and loss are most extreme. Working with the data he had, and from his experience largely in Northern America, Krauss’s pessimistic predictions are understandable (Lewis et al 2013).


The above conclusion calls for reflection on how the phenomenon has been apprehended so far and to how comprehensive and effective, the language endangerment and vitality assessment tools have been in giving the right picture of speech communities. Mufwene (n.d.:12) notes that:

A global examination of the whole situation prompts several questions, the first of which is whether language advocates have a global understanding of the complexity of the issues. Are the language advocates and environmentalists approaching the subject matter of endangerment with the same or similar concerns? (Mufwene n.d.:12)


Two concerns have been the most prominent among language rights advocates: 1) as noted above, loss of languages entails loss of traditional knowledge that can be helpful to mankind (e.g. Nettle & Romaine 2000; Crystal 2000, 2004; Maffi (2001); and 2) loss of languages entails loss of linguistic diversity, which would be harmful to linguistics, because linguists would have fewer data for a more accurate understanding of the nature of typological variation and language universals (Krauss 1992, Hale 1992).


The current research takes its rise from our observation that the indigenous traditional ecosystem or niche is very important for the preservation of the language. Also, most models of language endangerment and vitality evaluation in the literature (Fishman 1991; UNESCO 2003; EGIDS 2010; Landweer 2006) have not always taken into consideration the specificities of minority speech communities in the world in general, and those of indigenous (traditional) ethnic communities in Africa in particular.


The existing tools for the assessment of ethnolinguistic vitality are not effective enough to accurately assess the vitality of minority ethnic communities because they do not capture the fact that ethnolinguistic vitality has a dichotomous construction: ethnic and linguistic. Most tools have tended to assess linguistic vitality in isolation, without giving due attention to the socio-cultural component of the community which speaks the language.

They have neglected ethnic and socio-cultural dynamics that influence the language ecology. This is due to the fact that most linguists have analysed languages as living organisms fighting against each other, whereas languages are species just like biological species, whose fate is dependent on the environment in which they are found (Mufwene 2008), and changes occurring in the immediate environment certainly affect language vitality and sustainability. The UNESCO (2003, 2013) assessment metric has a macrolevel perspective, and do not capture the specificity of minority languages which are still in early stages of development. Moreover, the ethnolinguistic vitality perspective is not taken into account.

The Ngomba, Ngiemboon and Ngombale speech communities are indigenous minority communities and their classification with the vitality or endangerment scale could be flawed if we used the UNESCO (2003) framework. In the same vein, some aspects that are crucial in understanding the trends (elements of external influence) that are crucial in understanding the sustainability trends could be ignored.


Most language assessment tools do not consider the role of globalisation, modernity and urbanisation in the shaping the language ecology. Most often, these factors which influence the socio-cultural environment (which are niche for the language) are eroding, exposing the language to outside threat. When this environment remains intact, the language keeps all its meaning because there is still need to use specific idiom to express its peculiarity.


This seems obvious but might have been ignored, or not given full attention by theoreticians of language endangerment and vitality assessment tools. Many of those studies (Fishman’ GIDS 1992; Lewis 2010’ EGIDS; UNESCO 2003, 2011) seem to have ignored the fact that the assessment of the ethnolinguistic vitality of minority languages must take into account element of ethnicity on the one hand, and those of language ecology on the other hand. Landweer (2000, 2006, 2011) has attempted to expand on the importance of the community and ethnic group in her model, but has neglected some important factors mentioned in other models such as the UNESCO 2003. Ehala (2013) has expanded on the strength of the community as a key element of ethnolinguistic vitality.


There are socio-cultural factors that support the ethnolinguistic vitality which have not always received enough emphasis by those who develop linguistic assessment tool. As it stands clear from its morphology, the word Ethnolinguistic vitality is a dichotomous expression including an ethnic as well as a linguistic component.


Much is still to be done to solve the problem of the categorisation of world languages. One of such problems is the gathering of accurate and precise data on world languages; the other is to revisit the perception of what should be considered a dying or vigorous language. It is equally urgent to rethink what are the real causes of language death or the factors enhancing ethnolinguistic vitality, in order to propose accurate ethnolinguistic vitality assessment indicators. Landweer (2012) summarises on the key sociolinguistic factors that contribute to the viability of a language as provided by Crystal (2000: 70 –89). They include: isolation from external domination by a larger group, cultural independence, etc… (Crystal 2000: 70 – 89).


Beside those factors, it is important to really understand the factors that have positively impacted language retention in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific. The frameworks for language endangerment and vitality assessment that has been mentioned above are all drawn from the perception that the main cause of language loss is the hegemony of some languages on the others. Yet, we can observe that though they are laudable efforts to the categorisation of world languages, these assumptions are questionable. Mufwene (2008) has criticized Crystal (2000, 2004), Dalby (2002), Nettle/Romaine (2000), Maffi (2001), Phillipson (2003), and Skutnabb-Kangas (2000), on what he consider as some misgivings over some recent linguistics publications on language endangerment.


Also, discourses on language endangerment have tended to treat languages as agents (animate species) instead, and the speech community as a group of victims of the evolution of language environment. Hence, concepts like “language wars” (Calvet 1998) have sprung and describing English as an imerialistic and “killer language” (Price 1984; Nettle & Romaine 2000) cited by Mufwene (2008:10).


Also, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) has emphasized more on linguistic rights (the right of the language to continue to exist) than the right of the speech community to survive.

Hence, the literature has generally underscored the cultural impoverishment of the affected

population. It is important that today’s perspectives on language endangerment and vitality


and ethnolinguistic vitality studies should emphasise the role of the environment of the indigenous or traditional ethnic minority communities, just as it is the case with language.


Also, many works have attributed language loss to contact with what has been termed hegemonic or killer languages such as English and French. We have to note that languages are being abandoned by their very speakers, rather than a particular language waging war against others. Mufwene (n.d.:7) suggests:

It is however worth noting that where European languages have not faced much resistance – especially in former settlement colonies, where they have become popular vernaculars – indigenous languages have suffered attrition or death by the “neglect” of their own (would-be) speakers. Mufwene (n.d.:7)


Mufwene (n.d) thinks that, it is unlikely that English which is used as a medium in higher education in Holland and Denmark is endangering Dutch and Danish; just as it is yet to be proven that the use of French as lingua franca in other part of the world (outside the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the United states) is endangering the vitality of indigenous languages. To him, the naturalness of egalitarian multilingualism seems to be a way of life in many parts of the world. In those places, he adds, only 20% of the population (the elites for the most part) is literate in those LWCs. The remaining 80% of the local populations who are practically ‘disenfranchised’ by the world-wide global economy are not at all affected by whether or not English or French is prevailing as a/the foreign language that interfaces their nations with the rest of the world.


It is therefore obvious that one of the most cited criteria for language vitality, demographic strength, may be pertinent in many areas, but not crucial in others. The reason for the strength of the ethnolinguistic vitality of some languages should be found elsewhere, most likely in the specific language ecology of those areas.

Indigenous ethnic communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, and even in the Pacific seem to have an ecology which is favourable to language retention, despite the fact that the languages were still underdeveloped (Bamgbose 2011). There must have been other specific factors that have supported and caused the communities to continue to speak their languages. Could they have been doing so consciously or subconsciously?

Mufwene (n.d.) argues that “the vitality of the language depends on those day-to-day practices in which speakers are enticed by the interactional conditions to speak a particular language rather than an alternative.” He claims that:

Africans and Asians still stick to many of their traditions, despite the non negligible cultural influence they have received from the West. Even the elite that speak European


languages, as lingua francas and of course non-natively, still claim that indigenous identity, which has made them loyal to the indigenous languages. (Mufwene n.d.:19)


Most researches have claimed that the reason for the demise of minority languages was their low status, limited number of speakers, lack of generational transmission, lower state of development and non existence of documents for a sustainable literacy. But these assumptions are not always true.

First, intergenerational transmission of a language is the result rather than the cause of language vitality; it is the sign that the speech community is still attached to their language. But it does not really answer the question why the community has remained attached to it. It has been claimed that, language with institutional support become prestigious and stand greater chances of survival. This is partially true. Languages with high prestige which endures institutional support from their speech communities, like Estonian show signs of frailty as Estonian scholars are really worried about its future (Ehala, pers communication, 2013). Estonian is used in all domains, including academia, and is one of the languages with a remarkable presence in the internet. The government provides full supports to the language; there is long tradition of literacy in the Estonian language.


It is therefore important to consider if there are not context-specific elements peculiar to indigenous communities around the world and Sub-Saharan Africa that should be taken into account in building an effective framework for minority ethnic communities’ assessment.


The present research seeks to restore the place of ethnicity as an important element in the study of language shift and culture shift as Kulick (1992) remarked1. It throws a conceptual bridge between macrosociological factors seen to bring about social change and the ways in which those factors come to influence people’s perception of strategies (Kulick, 1992). This has always been acknowledged in theories of ethnolinguistic vitality, but undermined in all conceptual frameworks and language endangerment and vitality assessment tools that are widely used.


1.2  Statement of the Research Problem


It is our postulate that ethnic vitality study must be taken into consideration in the assessment of language vitality. Ethnic vitality can be regarded as a feature of social capital. The concept of ethnic vitality refers to “ethnic agencies institutions that can support the acculturation

1Social elements like status, religion and education were identified by Bourhis et al as elements influencing ethnolinguistic vitality.


process” … (Adelman, 1988; Malewska-Peyre, 1982). It is only by approaching the assessment with this perspective that one can actually provide a comprehensive assessment of the ethnolinguistic vitality of a minority group. Also, indigenous language, culture, religion and land are related entities in an ethnic community. Thus ethnolinguistic vitality model must attempt to be holistic in its approach. Furthermore, in a globalisation context, the sustainability of an ethnic community depends, on the capacity of the community, on the one hand, to mitigate the negative impact of external factors resulting from change due to urbanisation, modernity, secularism, and, on the other hand, the community’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities being provided by the external environment.

1.3  Research Questions


The present research is driven by the following research questions:


Research Question 1


  • Which are those elements, peculiar to the sub-Saharan linguistic ecosystem (language ecology) that must be taken into account in assessing the ethnolinguistic vitality and sustainability of indigenous (ethnic) minority speech communities?

In other words, the study Are there specific features of minority ethnic communities in Sub- Saharan Africa that are pertinent and crucial, and must be given due attention in any endeavour to provide a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of the vitality and sustainability of those ethnic groups? How can factors identified be put in a framework for ethnolinguistic vitality and sustainability assessment?

This question examines the existence of specific elements of the ecology (internal and external environment) of sub-Saharan Africa that could account for the persistence of minority speech communities in Africa in particular and other regions like the Pacific.


Research Question 2


  • Could the Ngomba, Ngiemboon and Ngombale speech communities be said to constitute distinct minority indigenous communities with specific ethnic identities and functional supportive social institutions to which this specific framework can apply?


Research Question 3


  • What is the degree of ethnolinguistic vitality of the selected community?

In other words, how can the Ngomba, Ngiemboon and Ngombale speech communities be classified within the assessment framework proposed by the present study?


This addresses more specifically the following questions:

  1. What is the strength (objective community vitality) of the ethnic groups?
  2. What is the language and cultural vitality of the three communities?
  3. How do community members’ perception and attitude towards their heritage

language and culture affect their transmission and reproduction?

  1. What is the level of Government and institutional support towards languages and cultures in general and towards the specific languages and cultures under studies?
  2. Are there initiatives to empower and sustain the heritage languages and cultures? If yes, how effective and sustainable are they?


Research Question 4


  • What is the degree of ethnolinguistic sustainability of these indigenous communities? How are the communities behaving amidst fierce global cultural and linguistic competition which forces minority groups to assimilate to dominant groups?
  1. What is the impact of threats brought by globalisation, modernity and urbanisation on the ethnolinguistic vitality and sustainability of the Ngomba, Ngiemboon and Ngombale speech communities?
  2. How can opportunities such as decentralisation be used to improve the ethnolinguistic sustainability of the communities?
  3. When presented in the form of indicators, which of the following quality indicators: demographic figures, intergenerational transmission, member’s attitude, institutional support and ethnic vitality are crucial for the ethnolinguistic vitality and sustainability of the speech communities under investigation? In other words, which positive factors of linguistic preservation are more present, and what negative indicators are worth taking into account if actions must be taken to render the speech communities more sustainable?


Research Question 5



  • How can these speech communities be made more sustainable in the face of external but competitive and aggressive dominant groups and cultures in the era of globalisation? This amounts to examining: “What strategic planning which takes into account the weaknesses, the strengths, the threats and opportunities should be put in place?”
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