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The 2023 MASS Africa Speaks Conference

An interactive and educational opportunity to learn about the importance of African languages

Over February 10 and 11, McGill students, community members, and Montrealers joined on campus at the McGill University’s Faculty Club for the yearly Africa Speaks Conference (ASC) directed by the McGill African Students Society (MASS), and supported by the McGill African Studies Program and SSMU. Following the topic on how to “create an Africa for all Africans through the promotion of African languages,” the free and open-to-all interactive conference was divided into three panels: “Languages and Power,” “Language and the Arts,”and “Philosophies of Language,” accompanied by various Q&A sessions. Mediators and panelists including MASS members, professors, and experts created an enthusiastic, engaging, and educational atmosphere for attendees. Opinions and interests were shared over drinks and food at the end of each day.

Following the mandate to “promote and present the diverse and rich African cultures to the McGill community and the greater Montreal area,” MASS is a student-run club dedicated to spreading knowledge and promoting different topics pertaining to African people on the continent and across the diaspora. Members are brought together in a welcoming and educational environment through the organization of events around different aspects of African culture, including conferences, parties, Thanksgiving potlucks, and annual galas.

Mouhamadou Sy, mathematician at Johns Hopkins University and activist for African languages and cultures, was the keynote speaker of the “Languages and Power” panel. Sy explained the political power of language, specifically how languages in which policies are written have more power and influence. He stressed that languages must play a fundamental political, economic, educational, social and cultural role in civilization. Only through this can they be revitalized.

“Today we think that African languages must serve [communities], but in my opinion African languages will never be able to serve communities if we think that they must only serve [communities]. All powers linked with languages must be restituted,” said Sy.* 

With such a multitude of African languages – e.g., Nigeria and Cameroon have 520 and 277 living languages respectively – many may be threatened. For instance, in times of conflict, languages with stronger political powers can dominate and threaten minority languages. Throughout the conference, examples for this were drawn from past colonization of the French and English in areas of Africa where colonial languages were imposed upon local African communities. 

Ibrahima Abdoul Hayou Cissé, head of the Education sector and Focal point for the Social and Human Sciences sector at UNESCO, then discussed the ways in which language can be used and abused. Cissé spoke about how “it is with words that conflicts are born, [and] it is with words that we must build the defenses of peace.”* He then brought up the consequences of hate speech, including how words insulting religion and the use of animal terms to dehumanize people can be weapons of power. He recognized social media as a major driver in encouraging these acts.  

Associate Professor Khalid Mustafa Medani, Chair of the African Studies Program at McGill, then expressed his expert opinion on how the influence of African languages goes beyond what is said and written, and how language is an essential part of Africa’s rich and diverse identity. In addition, conversations about current global difficulties of reaching the goal of multilingualism, including in Canada where language has divided parts of the country, were an important part of the discussions. This ultimately led to the acknowledgment that Africa presents real promise of encouraging multiple languages to be officially accepted. “The multiplicity of languages is what makes Africans unique in the sense that it is the continent that leads the way to a true multilingualism,” said Medani.

The following day started off with the “Language and the Arts” panel centered around African artists and their role in the promotion of language. Among the panelists were Bojana Coulibaly from Harvard University and Mathias Ohrero from McGill, who partook in a lively discussion about the feasibility of writing in a native language and how artistic work can remain limited to a certain audience. In response, panelists brought up ways to achieve balance between authenticity and accessibility to a wider local audience. However, this discussion remained unresolved, as panelists discussed that the use of native languages is required to capture certain theories of language, which in turn sacrifices broader accessibility to those who do not speak the language. 

The conference closed with the third and final panel, “Philosophies of Language,” about African theories of language and worldviews. Panelists talked about what happens socially and cognitively when a child receives education in a language other than their mother tongue. Panelists then discussed the hegemony of language – specifically how the English and French imposed their languages on African societies during periods of colonization – as well as potential ways to promote African languages. The first option explained was to maintain these “colonial” tongues as the official languages, whilst including Indigenous languages in education, business, politics, law, and health. Another option – often informally done – involves making a native lingua franca the official language.

In an interview with the Daily, MASS Vice President of Education Aïché Danioko, expressed what she hopes will come out of the conference and enthusiastically invites everyone to come to future MASS events. “I hope that what people will remember at the end of this, is that the African languages are worth struggling for. That the questions we addressed tonight are worth considering seriously and taking the time to stop and struggle with to ultimately reach conclusions that bring us closer to our goal of a good life for Africans,” said Danioko. 

By the end of the conference, the importance of African language diversity was reaffirmed and that embracing the many languages within a single country has allowed many regions in Africa to use a local lingua franca while maintaining their ethnic languages. Thus, the conference asserted that  multilingualism in Africa is in fact productive, practical, and feasible. “[…] what makes Africa African is its true diversity,” concluded Medani.

*Quotes have been translated from French.