Multilingualism is the act of using multiple languages either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers. Multilingualism is a liability and not an asset. It is detrimental to all the areas of development of Africa namely; social, educational, political and psychological development.
With social development, the effects of dense multilingualism are heavily felt in the society in areas of social mobility, loss of identity and social conflict. Language plays a crucial role in ensuring social versatility. However, in the situation where horizontal communication at inter-ethnic, inter-tribal, inter-regional and inter-national levels is denied through plurality of languages, social versatility also becomes impeded. A lot of the people do not possess the linguistic denominator for social growth; as such they become socially and economically stagnated. Where there is the appearance of versatility, what we have is vertical mobility of the privileged few. It is common in most African settings to see a star emerging in the midst of darkness, how much light can this provide? One rich man in the midst of six poor people is also very poor. The incidence of social inertia gives rise to all kinds of poverty-induced violence, for example armed robbery.
The use of language is also seen as a means of promote social identity. So any attempt made to kill a man’s language becomes a mode of obliterating his identity. The situation whereby a language becomes a primus inter peers (first among equals), the speakers of the other languages feel their identity is being eroded.
In African states the colonial languages are still mainly used for formal education. As far as competence in these languages is concerned, many learners are not adequate in the languages to the point of effectively acquiring knowledge in them. Apart from this, several varieties of these colonial languages are in use all over the world, for example the English language. Knowing which variety to realistically serve of for teaching and learning can be a very serious problem. The mother tongue or first language plays a major role in moulding the early life of the child and it is the means of orientation in the cultural environment. As such, using it in educating the child “in the first years of schooling enhances continuity in the child’s learning process and therefore maximizes his intellectual development” (Chumbow, 1990:63).
On the other hand, refusing to use it for initial learning is denying opportunity for accelerated and easy acquisition of knowledge of the child. This may account for many dropouts very early in their learning career thus giving rise to mass illiteracy, poor development of the educational system, limited and lack of access to knowledge and skills.
The adverse effects of complex multilingualism appear to be more felt and volatile in the area of politics than elsewhere. Languages are said to be politicized when they are identified with particular political philosophies or programmes and as such invested with particular political meanings. For example, expressions like boers, boesmans(bushman) and san(tramp) have serious ethnic and tribal connotations in South Africa. These expressions have great political implications which can be derogatory or divisive.
Again is the politicization of some language-related phenomenon like language learning, teaching and ethnicity. The players in the political terrain manipulate these often for negative effects. Eventually, the masses are denied political knowledge thereby resulting in low and inadequate participation in politics and development. The outcome is instability in the nation and in the continent as a whole. This is why national and continental integration has been a problem in Africa. One can identify the ethnic genesis of the crises in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Chad. These crises result in great losses in human, material and spiritual resources which should have been harnessed for growth and development.
In its extreme form, multilingualism has an effect on human behavior and development. Language constrains people to think in a particular way and determines their attitude to speakers of the language. In African states, the speakers of major languages (i.e. languages spoken by a large number of the population) tend to look down on other languages whereas the speakers of the minor languages (i.e. those spoken by a very small group) look at the major languages with suspicion. They always look for signs of exploitation and oppression in the conduct of the major language speakers. There is therefore a constant struggle for supremacy and survival. This situation is at variance with growth and development.
Also the speakers of a language tend to have a peculiar attachment to and affinity with their language and tribe to the exclusion of other tribes and tongues. This breeds a high level of suspicion and distrust on one hand, and undue, almost illogical love on the other. This attitude does not allow for meaningful inter-ethnic and inter-tribal collaboration capable of endangering progress and development.
In conclusion, it would be of great importance to note that multilingualism is a canker that has no cure. It can only be managed and this management can only be realized if individuals themselves take the bold step forward first.