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Viva Blade for reigniting the language debate


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

This year humanity will top 7 billion people. Paradoxically this landmark emphasises how indispensible common understanding through language is, at the same time as how precious a treasure each of our 6,000 tongues is. With 11 official languages, at least 20 other commonly spoken ones and one highly endangered language – that of the San people – South Africa is the perfect platform on which to debate the “language issue”. Of course, reconciling divergent views is the tough part.

Blade Nzimande’s suggestion that the department of education would seek to make learning an African language incumbent on all university students has been met with a mixture of alarm and confusion. It is, of course, that much contested word, African, that has captured the attention  the nation again.  What did Nzimande mean when he boldly proclaimed no university student would be able to graduate without learning an African language? Did he mean KiSwahili or Sesotho or Setswana or have we been bid to be more universally relevant and learn Arabic and French as well? KiSwahili is certainly the lingua Franca of much of Africa, but French or Arabic is the mother-tongue of millions of Africans as well. Just what is an African language? And gratuitously gnawing  wounds closer to home, the status of our only home-made language Afrikaans, “ons geliefde taal”,  is yet to be sufficiently addressed. With the exception of English and Afrikaans, we have nine other home-grown languages, but what then, defines these languages as especially African?

A debate on the components of what makes up African identity might be overdone, but it is rarely invalid. In this case, however, the debate about what, or who, is construed to be African misses a crucial point. Languages are living, breathing social constructs that do not exist in a vacuum. For all our official languages to survive to define who South Africans are, conscious and deliberate action from the government is required.

And while the rest of the government may have lost touch with the significance of language to the creation of a functioning South Africa, Nzimande appears conversely to be alive to the need for a more strident language policy in the country. He has emphasised the development and teaching of African languages in universities was something he was taking up as a “special ministerial project”. Nzimande has also appointed an advisory panel and given them the task of looking into enforcing new language policies in universities that would ultimately determine how best to strengthen the expansion of African languages that are in “serious decline”.  That African languages, as Nzimande defines them, are in decline cannot be doubted. The current rate of language loss is alarmingly high throughout the world and the abject level of development of our African languages puts them at greater risk of extinction.

The government, it must be remembered has been mandated by a 2009 United Nations resolution, “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. Yes, we have potholes to fill, utility bills to make sense of and a national cricket team that never fails to disappoint, but other challenges do not detract from the very real problem of the severe underdevelopment of  the majority of our official languages – not to mention “unofficial” ones.

Linguists believe that there are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. A whopping 1,900 of these are spoken in Africa alone. But according to one doomsayer, an 90% of the world’s languages will either be dead or doomed by 2100. Other estimates of languages in serious danger are only marginally less alarming, proposing instead just 50% of languages to be in severe danger of untimely death.  But even according to the more conservative estimate, 3,000 languages stand to fade away into linguistic oblivion by the end of this century. Unless intervention, not to be confused with the kind Nato is making in Libya, is made into the framework governing how South African languages are used, we could lose not only a number of our official languages, but also the intellectual wealth embodied in these languages. Vigorous action to preserve our linguistic heritage is urgently required. Nzimande’s proposed compulsion of an African language at tertiary level is absolutely justified. The loss of any language robs us of a unique repository of experience and prevents us from reaching across ourselves to connect with others in their own language.

And while Nzimande must be lauded for proposing an intervention, his own justification for proposing it was plain stupid. Speaking in isiZulu, Nzimande said: “Akukwazi ukuba yithi kuphela ekuthiwa sifunde isingisi nesibhunu bakwethu, kodwa ezethu iyilimi nabanye bangazifundi [We can’t be expected to learn English and Afrikaans, yet they don’t learn our languages]”.

It is ridiculous for a minister to be encouraging an “us” versus  “them” sentiment in the proposal of new language policies. It severely threatens support for the proposed policies and undermines any benefit the policies may reap. This policy cannot be seen as an opportunity to foist one culture upon another, just because we can.   And yet, even the Pan South African Language Board’s acting chief executive Chris Swepu failed to look beyond the paralysing polarities of black and white: “White people have been in the country for more than 300 years, but they are still not willing to learn our languages”.  Swepu went on to advise   government to “make it policy that if you want a government job you have to know an African language.”  These comments and their attendant ideologies seed the fear that compulsory African languages in university courses is too much like the enforcement of Afrikaans as a teaching medium in apartheid-era South Africa. Prescription in this sense proffers a sense of conscription, compulsory military service in an armed force that does not inspire any sympathy for its cause.

The proposal to compel students to learn another language will not come at the cost of English and Afrikaans, but increasing the usefulness of our other official languages in the economic sphere, will vastly improve its chances of survival.
Hayibo in its excellent spoof of the language debate this week, neatly demonstrated the superficialities of a South African society that does not speak each other’s languages. How we perceive ourselves changes with time and our community of practice, allowing us multiple identities over time, but there is a definite sense in which languages can be an impediment to integration when they are used to entrench differences instead of fostering shared experiences.

If we are to believe that an overarching South African identity can be achieved at all, then shared experiences must be enhanced and differences of experiences reduced. Learning each others’ languages grants us an opportunity to share experiences, it gives us the tools vital to constructing a South African identity.

It must be realised language planning is a necessary and valuable tenet of good governance, especially so in a multilingual society like South Africa. The threat to linguistic diversity is as real as it is to biodiversity and unless South Africans come together to realise the need to preserve our linguistic identity, we will be overseeing the death of many of our official languages. Blade Nzimande is quite right to argue for compulsory language classes for university students, our linguistic diversity depends  on it. DM


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