The language situation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Historical roots, measurement, and development impacts

K. Buzasi

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


The broader aim of this thesis is to contribute to the literature seeking the role of languages in determining the socio-economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa. The four chapters are related to three issues: linguistic diversity measurement, the role of languages other than communication, and the long-term roots of the language situation.
Existing linguistic diversity indices measure the probability that two randomly selected people in the society speak different primary languages. Although some indicators recognize that certain languages are more similar than others, none of them account for other than primary languages. Since the majority of the population in linguistically fragmented countries is multilingual, ignoring second languages, which are assumed to overcome linguistic barriers, could lead to somewhat biased results when analyzing the relationship between the language situation and socioeconomic outcomes. Chapter 3 elaborates on the Index of Communication Potential (ICP) which shows the probability that two people of the country selected at random can communicate given their language repertoire. Data are taken from the Afrobarometer Project. Chapter 3 also reveals the most important dimensions of the language situation in twenty Sub-Saharan countries including the ethnic and linguistic diversity, the average number of spoken languages, the share of people speaking the former colonizer’s language and the relationship between local and European languages.
The most important functions of languages are communication, identity construction, and the transmission of culture and traditions. If we consider the communication function of languages in its strict sense (i. e. we ignore that languages are often attached cultural and symbolic value), it should not matter if information is transmitted in one’s primary language or in another: in theory, they can be equally efficient (especially in simple situations). However, when it comes to the other two functions, we expect that the cultural and symbolic value attached to primary and secondary languages are different. While the social and political science literature provide evidence that the identification and cultural role of primary languages is strong, the importance of additional languages in these aspects is less established. The thesis provides evidence that multilingualism can be beneficial: it promotes social cohesion. While Chapter 4 finds that people who live in an area with higher average communication potential are more likely to trust in unknown people, Chapter 5 shows that speaking more than two languages and higher individual communication potential leads to stronger identification with the nation compared to one’s own ethnic group.
While existing studies predominantly focus on the geographical and climatic determinants of ethnolinguistic diversity across the globe, the thesis investigates how historical factors have influenced a less investigated dimension of the language situation, namely language status. Chapter 2 finds that the languages of ethnic groups with more socio-economic complexity before the colonial era and languages which were standardized earlier by Christian missionaries are more likely to be officially recognized and less likely to be endangered today.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • van Zanden, Jan Luiten, Primary supervisor
  • Mous, M., Supervisor, External person
Award date19 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2015


  • Africa
  • language status
  • linguistic diversity
  • trust
  • national identity
  • communication potential


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