Resisting Linguistic Genocide How Colonization Shaped Language in Guinea-Bissau

Colonization was an enterprise that not only administratively dominated the colonized territories by having exploited its resources illegitimately and illegally. In Guinea-Bissau as in other formerly colonized regions, colonization was, above all, also an act of cultural alienation of the natives, who saw their traditions belittled and ridiculed, their history suspended, and their languages the preserve of the most uneducated.

The literature surrounding colonialism is highly focused on European expansion and its use of force to dominate and subject other nations to economic exploitation. Still, even though these colonial characteristics are highly relevant, it is also necessary to evaluate the cultural and linguistic impacts of imperial rule in the subordinate regions. As Edward Said, the father of the academic field of postcolonial studies, would argue, these same impacts enabled the solidification of binaries which consisted in assigning labels of otherness and low prestige to non-Western languages, including those that emerged from colonial expansion, while perceiving European languages as superior and universal. 

On that account, a major key factor that shaped humanity surrounding the colonial project was the imposition of language, in which some cultures may be considered of lower rank compared to others. This type of oppression is still witnessed throughout the globe—tensions between English and Celtic languages; indigenous fighting for a voice in settler colonies such as Canada, the United States and New Zealand; and the pressures to dismiss Pidgin as a language by right in Nigeria. These examples were provided to emphasize the understanding that in such regions powerful metropolitan elites needed to secure control, internally and externally. Their logic was to enforce language in the colonial territory, gain access and improve relationships with local elites who would then perceive their native language as secondary. Like Antonio De Nebrija, Spanish humanist and writer, asserted in 1492,Siempre la lengua fue companera del imperio—language has always been the companion of the empire.’  

Consequently, this issue led to ‘linguistic genocide’ as it took over the entire communication system in these regions, completely erasing or impeding languages from crucially developing. Due to European imperialism, around 6,000 languages were decimated, seeing that native languages were discriminated against; as a result, such languages were not passed on to the following generations. Farrel Corcoran, author and academic, explains that ‘the global language system must be seen as dynamic rather than static,’ since language itself is supported by nothing but the power relations between trade and imperialism, ultimately conditioning the current distribution of information and communication. 

Although nations gained independence and sovereignty over their territories, decolonizing thought and colonial linguistic traits are ongoing. Following the Second World War, European superiority and the stigmatization of non-Western languages have been constantly questioned; nevertheless, formerly dominated nations aimed to position themselves against their former colonial powers and dismantle the colonial status quo. 

Thus, the goal of European expansion and colonialism was to extend Europe’s economic and power levels outside European borders and to propound superiority which was met by submitting populations to all sorts of atrocities. Through pillage, mass genocides and rape, this was eventually achieved.  However, other methods guaranteed European imperialism’s sovereignty and drive. Colonialism was supported by power structures such as social and hierarchical systems overflowing with tales of ‘undeniable’ European superiority. While Europe and its allies sat at the top of privilege, the colonized were described as subordinates whose very purpose in life was to be subjugated as backward, inhuman, lower class and, nonetheless, to meet all European needs. Colonization was an enterprise that not only administratively dominated the colonized territories by having exploited its resources illegitimately and illegally, but it was, above all, also an act of cultural alienation of the natives (indigenous, in the imperialist vocabulary), who saw their traditions belittled and ridiculed, their history suspended and placed in the ‘wilderness state’ in which colonial domination has always sought to have oppressed men and women. Their languages were then considered the most uneducated. 


So how did colonialism and coloniality truly shape language? In order to understand the linguistic operations, we must evaluate the economic, political, religious and social factors and their repercussions on the livelihood of colonial subjects. Language and culture are products of each other thereby shaping our perception of ourselves and the world around us. Scholars believe that language is the ladder for the universe of identity and nationality. This leads to the question of what is precisely language oppression. There are several scholarly debates regarding the concept of language oppression. Gerald Roche, anthropologist and linguist, for instance, describes it as a ‘form of domination that is coherent with other forms of oppression along the lines of race, nation, color and ethnicity’. Other academics define it as the ‘enforcement of language loss by physical, mental, social and spiritual coercion’—overall, an evolution through linguicism and linguistic discrimination.  

A language hierarchy was built where the oppressor’s language was considered prestigious and universal, becoming the communication tool for trade and social interactions. These practices heavily affected local languages, which eventually became subalterns within the hierarchy; furthermore, European languages retarded the development of native linguistic systems. By contrast, the colonizers’ language became vital for those ready to assimilate and adapt within the colonial sphere; elites pursued raising their children under the colonial language instead. The increase in speakers of the colonial language and its power was supported then by the binary discourses around Europeans and non-Europeans. According to Said in ‘Orientalism’, who supports this argument, Western societies built their image at the expense of belittling their colonized nations. At the same time, they managed to give legitimacy to those beliefs by recreating history and introducing their culture as universal, unique and the ultimate saviour of backwardness and superstition. Said also emphasizes the position of French philosopher, Michel Foucault, when considering that power and knowledge are forever intertwined; as in this case, they are supported by the empowerment of the oppressor language and the belief that native languages are connected to retardation. 

Therefore, the divide and conquer’ theory empowered the idea of a sole language which would automatically mean obedience, allegiance and a rebranding of identity. Linguistic oppression was then performed by first, the enslavement trade and death of many native speakers; second, the expansion of the bureaucratic state onto daily lives; third, the imposition of the oppressor language in institutions; fourth, the oppressor language as the link to religion; fifth, prioritizing the teaching of local elites; and lastly, military coercion into the imperial practices. The language shifted throughout time depending on the needs of the colonizers and the adaptations done by the colonized. Moreover, its sole purpose was to perpetuate and solidify colonial rule.  

In the cases of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, former Portuguese colonies, the colonial regime even established, utilizing a law, the conditions for a native to leave the situation of ‘indigenous’ (stop being an uncivilized person, as dictated by that law) for that of ‘assimilated’. Decree and laws were made to establish conditions that allowed a Guinean, Angolan or Mozambican, having renounced their traditions and cultures, to be considered Portuguese citizens. Among the conditions indicated by the law, it appears the obligation of the individual to speak the Portuguese language correctly. By submitting the colonized into assimilating and forgetting their heritage and language, Europeans expanded their beliefs of rubbing off identity and nationality from them; linguistic and cultural erasure became crucial to destabilizing and reshaping minority groups. 


So how does language play a role in people’s lives today? Through the lenses of language displacement and endangerment, consider the colonial legacy of language throughout Guinea-Bissau, a state part of Lusophone Africa.  

Guinea-Bissau is a country with a small geographical size (36,125 km²), with an estimated population of around 1.6 million inhabitants, heterogeneous in ethnic-cultural terms and which, since the unilateral proclamation of its independence, on 24 September 1973, adopted Portuguese as an official language and schooling language. In addition to Portuguese, it still has a national Creole language (‘Kiriol’, according to the local name) and 25 other ethnic languages that identify the different ethnic groups in the country. As language is an important tool for the quantitative and qualitative development in the identity and education of all, in multilingual countries with different cultural characteristics, such as Guinea-Bissau, both ancestral and more recent languages, such as Kiriol, play a fundamental role in people’s lives. Due to their Bantu origin, the oral language has fully served to transmit the culture and traditional habits that are marks of identity, both on the African continent and in other parts of the planet.  

During the colonial period, the indigenous people had limited access to formal education, which constrained their chances of learning Portuguese, the national language, and were solely able to communicate in Kiriol or the Bantu languages outside the academic domain. So, one of the principal issues that need tackling and decolonizing is de-facto the education system. Due to its European conception, the colonial structure of the education system continues to influence others through its linguistic and cultural practices while perpetuating imperial discourses. Therefore, through analysis, I’m led to the fundamental question: ‘Is Portuguese an ideal instrument to be used in the teaching-learning process for the liberation of the people of Guinea-Bissau?’ Based on this question, there is the perception that the language in question was one of the instruments used by Portuguese colonials for the domination of the people of Guinea, so I critically question how the same instrument of oppression could be served as an educational process that aims to liberate the country.  

Education in the student’s language facilitates cognitive development, especially in the early stages of primary education, in addition to being the basis of cultural reference. So, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, and many other countries have adopted local languages as teaching languages. Language is culture, and the two are inseparable. In this sense, the choice of language for teaching should demand a redoubled effort by government officials and education specialists in the search for coherent and cohesive planning of linguistic policy, which should, as a general objective, promote the qualitative development of global education in the country, based on the socio-cultural inclusion of all populations, especially those most in need. Thus, the Kiriol language, the most spoken by a majority of the Guinean population, should be prioritized in education so that all, or much of the population, feel included in the school system. 

Suppose we look at the context of the creation of the new state. Shortly after independence was achieved in 1973, the choice of Portuguese as the only language of instruction for the Guinean people was questioned, knowing that Kiriol was the most spoken and best-known by Guineans. Some hypotheses have been raised that guide the research: a) Since Kiriol is the most widely spoken language, students have difficulties in assimilating knowledge transmitted only in Portuguese, a fact that creates difficulties in the development and quality of students’ learning; b) its difficulty is a myth since Kiriol is often referenced as Portuguese based; c) there is a dictionary that reflects Bissau-Guineans’ socio-cultural and linguistic realities but is out of the financial reach of many.  

In this context, barely any efforts have been made to restructure the education system since independence; despite the impact on national development, donors such as International Financial Institutions insist that ‘Third World’ nations do not invest adequately in their teaching system, considerably aggravating the matter leading to significant budget cuts.  

Regarding Kiriol, pupils in public schools see themselves trying to juggle both languages without being able to fully exercise Portuguese outside the school environment, since solely two per cent of the population are fluent speakers. This issue worsens by the predominance of multilingualism among communities and the recurrent strikes and protests led by unpaid and underpaid public teachers. Consequently, there is a decrease in pupil attendance and a failure in national development levels as students fall under quasi-literacy and low qualifications. Somehow, the government fails to recognize the unsuitability of teaching practices and the lack of support provided to academia.  

Following these remarks, why did Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, settle for Portuguese instead of Kiriol or other Bantu languages 

The colonial race discourse enabled other inherent dichotomies, positive towards the Europeans and hostile towards the non-Europeans. These dichotomies deepened the connotations surrounding language since colonial languages were at the top of the hierarchy already; they were only positively strengthened. Native languages, on the other hand, were seen as ‘vernacular’, ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’, even those who emerged from imperial speech such as Kiriol, which was labelled as ‘broken Portuguese’ or ‘dialect’. Inevitably, the coloniality of language is still quite present today as non-European languages are still perceived as imprecise and unfit for public discourse or scientific thought. By staying attached to local languages, the population would often be seen as rebellious or resistant to assimilation and the ‘act of civilization’. Many described these languages as inferior and illegitimate since they lacked a dictionary or ‘proper’ grammar. Thus, learning a colonial language was compulsory and an asset to anyone’s social status and life towards modernity. 

Like other African leaders, the politician, agronomist and Marxist theorist, Cabral, believed that his population would have easier access to other nations and better chances in life by implementing the oppressors’ language as official—Portuguese as the key that unlocks doors. Leaders like Cabral did not see the more considerable implications that would arrive following this decision; by falling under the trap of ‘modernity’ and seeking to keep up with globalization, which is a movement of language too, linguistic imperialism prevailed. Local languages were given a slow death sentence. Cabral placed Kiriol, his mother tongue, in the same bag as those colonial powers had done—‘uncultured’, ‘unworthy’ and invisible. Notwithstanding, there is a lack of understanding that Portuguese is solely a reassertion and reconstruction of the dominant power structures that perpetuate the ruling of the dominant class. In this regard, it’s also worth noting how Portuguese is among the world’s top ten most spoken languages today, which also made part of their colonial strategy. 

The lack of belief in Kiriol and the other local languages climbs the ladder even higher by conditioning the population to perceive themselves as incapable or unfit to learn Portuguese. The Portuguese’s recurring role in destabilizing the former colonies’ economy and means of subsistence evolved to the point that people chose to abandon everything they had known until then. It also meant these people launching themselves into an uncertain future while pursuing a better lifestyle for themselves and their loved ones abroad. 


Take, for instance, my family. My parents migrated to Portugal in 1991, pursuing the ‘Portuguese Dream’; yet they were presented with a completely different reality. Most Luso-African citizens that immigrated or descend from immigration, natives of former Portuguese colonies, arrive searching for a better life while settling in economically segregated areas. Many areas comprise highly secluded and marginalized communities such as Luso-Africans or Eastern Europeans. These areas have little public fund investment to improve social goods, like education and health. In addition to these conditions, the presence of racism was evident, and it raised alarms. They understood that Black people and people of another colour or ethnicity are structurally at a disadvantage anywhere and at any social level from access to affordable housing and health with the lower prospects in terms of education and employment. Thus, due to the systemic systematic oppressions to which they were subjected, in both Guinea-Bissau and Portugal, there would also be much more propensity to poverty and limitations in the educational and professional path for their newborns.  

Unfortunately, like many immigrants that paid taxes for a ‘peaceful’ but constrained living, my parents took their atrocious experiences as tips to assimilate. From not teaching Kiriol or Pepel, their ethnic language, to never providing us with the ‘Bissau-Guinean for Dummies’ guide. They thought that learning fluent Portuguese and neglecting our native linguistic culture would automatically create space in Western societies and establish a Portuguese identity for all of us. Moreover, my personal development was negatively conditioned because I became a crust in an ‘oppressive’ identity as they erased their mother tongue and culture from me.  

Colonial practices have negatively affected both language and educational systems in formerly colonized nations, which can be witnessed today. Colonialism actively reformed the linguistic shape of regions and imposed educational structures that only benefited colonizers; they were solely interested in inserting more uplifting notions of what it meant to be European over their subjects and, nonetheless, complete control over economic resources. Many regions found it challenging to deconstruct the colonial imprint after they gained independence. They could not be bothered or assumed retaining colonial legacies like European languages would be an asset reserved for easier access to international integration as in Guinea-Bissau. Even though the number of pupils in Guinea-Bissau has increased since Second World War, colonial factors are apparent as the lack of action challenges many nations to decolonize the curriculum, language policies and teaching practices.  

In Guinea-Bissau, students are subjected to inadequate or non-existent education and still fall victim to discriminatory language policies. In addition, this unsatisfactory issue might reflect on the political instability the government has witnessed over the years since independence. There is a need for attention and action regarding linguistic needs not solely in education but amongst the population too; viable and feasible multilingual perspectives towards education need to be set in place. 

It’s also worth noting that there has been unnoticed ‘cooperation’ between these strategies of oppression since the scars of colonialism linger in the Bissau-Guinean teaching system and then overflow into the population, forcing Bissau-Guineans to assimilate, forsake their native language or stand in the shadows and neglect their education. Even though the parents in the diaspora and the Portuguese colonial traits ingrained in education may be perceived differently, they both refuse to acknowledge the variety of languages that Guinea-Bissau holds and the inalienable rights and generational/cultural benefits to using them. Roche describes this type of ‘cooperation’ as ‘articulated oppression’, which enhances oppression by ‘erasing erasure’ and deepening linguistic discrimination.  

In order to resist oppression, it’s necessary to understand how it’s produced and its ramifications. So, scholar and literary theorist, Gayatri Spivak, explains, ‘As such, we might tell heritage students; multicultural students; military, diplomatic, human rights, and business students that you do not learn culture as content, you learn language as practices.’

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