Communicating with a continent

September 12, 1997

Whether it is watching river flows, cash flows or linguistic flow, the three subjects below are attracting students

NO ONE in the United Kingdom studies for a single honours in African languages, but a growing number of students are keen to combine them with other subjects.

The School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, is the main centre for African language and culture in the UK. Birmingham University's Centre for West African Studies is the only other institution but it only teaches one language, Nigerian Yoruba.

SOAS saw the writing on the wall for African languages up to 15 years ago. There were then only around ten full-time equivalent students studying languages as the principal, or at least a major, component of their degree.

David Appleyard, head of the African languages and culture department, said: "People seemed to have the perception that a pure language degree would be extremely difficult. People now want to focus on not just one discipline but want to put several bits of programmes together."

The answer was to start the African studies course. This includes a compulsory language component with students offered the choice of taking one of five languages: Amharic (Ethiopian), Swahili, Hausa, Somali and Yoruba. The school had also offered Zulu but it is seeking a new lecturer in this language.

The African studies degree also allows students to combine their language with African geography, history, culture, music or any number of other disciplines. The result has been to raise interest dramatically in African studies.

Dr Appleyard, a reader in the languages of the Horn of Africa, said: "We had around 80 students on our own programmes last year around 60 of whom were studying African studies.

"By introducing African studies people who want to do African history, geography or development studies can also learn an African language for a practical reason."

Students can opt for a degree in African language and culture which has a strong language component but no more than a handful of students apply each year.

Many studying in the language and culture department are mature students. Quite a few are black westerners interested in the continent's culture, law, religion or development. Many graduates will spend time working in Africa in various fields and this is when their knowledge of a language will come into its own.

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