Skip to main content
February 21, 2003

"Our Languages Are Dying"

Have you ever thought about what your life would be like without your language? What about the fact that your children may not be able to speak your language when you are no longer alive?

It has been observed that “a lost language is a lost culture, a lost culture is invaluable knowledge lost.” We here in Kenya know that “it is lamentable that most Kenyan children from elite backgrounds do not [because they cannot] speak their mother tongues. Even at home parents of a certain linguistic background do not consider it expedient to communicate with their children in their mother tongue, which should be their first language. Such children learn English first from their parents and peers. If they learn their parents’ original language at all, it is much later. English they argue is not simply valuable, but an absolute necessity and so they are content when the children are fluent in it.”

Kenya is a coalition, in a sense, a multi-ethnic country with a plurality of languages and cultures. Language does not serve only as a means of communication, but as a marker of identity amongst the tribes. Kenya is said to be home to no less than 42 of Africa’s 1,800 languages. Languages serve as important symbols of group belonging, enabling different groups of people to know what ethnic group they belong to, and what common heritage they share.

Sixteen out of Kenya’s 42 languages are at serious risk of disappearing, according to “Extinct and Endangered Languages”, a recent report by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Languages are truly instruments of our perception of reality, as they influence the way we perceive things in our environment, the way we think, the way we act and speak as well as the way we behave in any given social context. Oliver Wendell Holmes once described language as “… the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Under normal circumstances, it is important to develop and sustain languages and protect them from being adulterated and overwhelmed by outside influences, as happens when one culture dominates another. No doubt languages are the most authentic ways through which people and communities can retain and safeguard knowledge, wisdom and their nomenclature passed down by their ancestors; they are, in one sense, precious and living heirlooms that must be protected.

Disturbed by this current trend, the Centre for Endangered Languages (CEL), which was established in Nakuru, Kenya in 2002, has taken on the daunting task of addressing, and arresting, the threat of extinction to which most of the languages of Kenya are exposed. CEL has ascertained that language extinction is a gradual process, which tends to affects the minority tribes most keenly. These tribes experience intense pressure – economic, social and political - to give up their own cultures, including their languages, to embrace those of the majority tribes. These minority tribes include the Ogiek, Elmolo, Sengwer, Yaaku, and Waata, most of them traditionally hunters and gatherers. In addition, Pokots, Marakwet, Keiyo, Tugen, Nandi, Kipsigis, Luhya and Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania have gradually assimilated the Sengwer. Kipsigis, Tugen and Maasai assimilate Ogiek in their regions.

Some have argued that since society is not static, people should accept dynamism in both culture and language, to embrace change and fraternize more easily for the purpose of speedy development. If we should give credence to this argument, it then implies that in no distant future, small ethnic groups will lose their cultural identities and languages and become lost tribes, relegated to the history books.

At the end of the 20th century, according to Nigerian CEL researchers, out of 6,800 languages classified as threatened, being spoken by the roughly six billion people of the Earth, 2,400 of them (35 percent) are indigenous to Africa. Indonesia is home to 672 languages, Papua New Guinea to 800, and Nigeria to 400 languages. While some of them are well known, others are virtually unheard of outside a small community of speakers. The fear being expressed today is that some of these languages, in view of their degrees of adulteration or outright abandonment, may not live to see the 22nd century. In fact, it is estimated that only ten percent of the present languages in the world will survive. The fear is that of a homogenous world, where everybody speaks the same language, wears the same standard clothes, and thinks the same standard thoughts. What should we make of this trend towards sameness; what future is the world heading towards? Our answer at CEL: Let’s be proud of our rich and different languages and cultures as Kenyans, and as Africans.

Kiplangat Cheruiyot is the National Coordinator of the Centre for Endangered Languages (CEL) in Kenya. His email address is