For a country its size, 274,200 km2 (105,900 sq mi), and a population of 18.6 million inhabitants, Burkina Faso ranks 37th in terms of linguistic diversity. Indeed, this landlocked country in the heart of West Africa has about 65 languages natively spoken on its territory.
“He who can’t speak his ethnic language is ethnically and culturally disoriented.” This saying is widely agreed upon among the Burkinabè. Colonized by the French towards the end of the 19th century, the Burkinabè saw his local languages lose status and even stigmatized in the face of French, the then language of power, prosperity, and prestige. Although it is widely agreed upon that no people can “develop” using the language of another, not much has been done to preserve and promote the languages of Burkina Faso on the political and educational spheres.
The notion of ethnic identity has, however, been one of the driving factors in preserving the languages of the Burkinabè thus far. For most Burkinabè, speaking one’s ethnic language is certainly the most important sign of belonging to that ethnic group. For example, most Burkinabè would switch the conversation into their ethnic language upon realizing that they and their interactant are from the same ethnic group. As such, language in and of itself represents the ID of ethnic groups. Given this fact, the Burkinabè usually ensures that his progeny speaks his ethnic language. However, with the limited settings in which some of these ethnic languages are used, their survival is at stake.
French, the official language of Burkina Faso, is also the language of education, administration, the army, the media, etc. Its use is thus maintained by those who have become proficient in it through school instruction and acquisition in informal settings. Those who have not benefited from formal French instruction often have limited French proficiency. In spite of their limited proficiency, they are still able to use it for communicating with those with whom they have no shared language. This use of French has made it a lingua franca. Other examples of lingua franca include Moore, which is spoken in the northern and the central parts of the country, and Jula, spoken in the western and southern areas.
The use of French as the official language of Burkina Faso does not just have drawbacks. The advantages of using French are not just limited to its status as an international language. Besides enabling the Burkinabè to communicate beyond its borders with other nations, the official status of French also answers the question of which ethnic language should made official given the imbroglio of choices and the risk of alienating the language of the other ethnic groups.