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Features & Columns
by Cath Jenkin

Preserving African Languages

Will the future generations know, or care about its linguistic culture?

Indigenous languages are at risk of dying an expected death
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South African Indigenous and Official Languages

Legislatively, South Africa has eleven official languages - Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Granted, the linguistic spread throughout the South African population is a little skewed, with more than 20% of the population listing Zulu as their first language and English hitting the mother tongue mark with less than 10% of South African citizens. Venda, Ndebele and Swazi collectively are the home languages for just over 6% of the South African population. There are estimated to be between 1500 – 2000 African languages being spoken on the continent but many are slowly dying and very little is being done to preserve them. As more of the Western world encroaches on our borders physically through immigration, culturally through the media and economically through business - the risk that faces our native languages on our own shores increases. Beyond our borders even smaller percentages of the world speak Zulu so the “ulimi ibhizinisi”or language of business, remains English, rather than a truly indigenous language. With business taking place and precedence within the continent, and an increase of foreign nationals settle in South Africa to take advantage of the business opportunities within the country at present, so the tiniest increments of indigenous languages are whittled away. Discarding an indigenous language, in favour of a more easily understood and generally accepted tool for communication seems to be the expected thing amongst black families with the assumption that it will have very little repercussions on a person or entity. But nothing could be further from the truth! But when the world around us demands that we discard that mother tongue so that we can survive and thrive within it, what do we do then? In a Ted Talk on Preserving Your Mother Tongue Suzanne Talhouk observes, “The only way to kill a nation – is to kill its language”. While this may sound radical and rather exaggerated, it is true. As a people we gain our cultural identity and therefore a large proportion of our personal identity, through the language we speak. Just as our parents teach us to communicate by speaking to us as toddlers, so the language we learn shapes our world and colours our imagination. Without constant attention and usage over time, the use of a language decreases and the delicate intonations, distinctive inflections and particular turns of phrase that go with it, disappear.

The Preservation of African Languages Through Education

Despite the 1976 massacre of children in South Africa, the Department of Basic Education has been reported to still be battling on the administrative front, as private schools in particular refuse to make the necessary steps to wholly incorporate the teaching of indigenous languages in their classrooms. To this day, Afrikaans is still taught to kids in school as a compulsory second language with very few schools offering an African language as an alternative. Howver, this hasn’t prevented the institution and its attached initiatives from implementing a firm and bold policy around indigenous languages, which hopefully will bear fruit in future years. In effect, and despite a myriad complaints and concerns emanating from the general public and an already overburdened public education sector, the South African government is steaming ahead in an effort to preserve and nurture the eleven official languages. Trialed in 2014 and entering implementation phase at the beginning of 2015, the Department of Basic Education has committed to its Incremental Introduction of African Languages Policy. In short, the National Curriculum Statement makes provision for three levels of languages to be taught in every grade. The Home Language, First Additional Languages and Second Additional Language become compulsory parts of the Grade 1 Curriculum in 2015, effectively extending the South African school day for this grade. Through its incremental approach, therefore, the policy and addition of a third language to each grade’s curriculum will extend the school day and increase the instructional load throughout each grade, implemented up until 2026, by which time all grades will be learning three languages in a compulsory fashion.

Beyond the Classroom

Beyond the classroom and behind closed doors, indigenous languages while still very much a part of South African homes are at risk of dying an expected death. The sad reality is as the world becomes more Westernized, more and more African parents are losing the desire or commitment to teach their kids their native languages. This can be blamed on a couple of factors: For most it can be blamed on the great economic migration of families as some made the move to urban areas and grandparents who were the true custodians of language and culture were left behind in the rural areas. For others who marry across tribal and border lines, eg Xhosa and Shona, Yoruba and Sotho etc. it is easier to converse at home in an universal language and they feel English is the best option as it also gives their children an advantage at school. For another group, the move to more affluent and “whiter” neighbourhoods resulted in them socializing with people who speak mostly English and the need to speak in their own mother tongue fizzled away. Others, sadly just don’t feel the need to instill this in their children as they themselves now mostly converse in English as class and racial lines are broken down. While these reasons are all justified, the sad reality is it has resulted in a generation of black children who are black by colour and not much else. So separated are they from that which makes them who they are, they stand the risk of losing their identity completely. The rich culture of storytelling and traditional communication survives somewhat, but has for the most part lost its place in the home where every evening the family would gather around Gogo and be enthralled by her stories of the Rabbit and the Hare being told in vernacular. This tradition has been replaced by parents reading Dr Seuss at bedtime to their kids. And, while some of the country’s most loved storytellers, like Gcina Mhlope, still tell their stories in a variety of languages, it is a far cry from where it should be when it comes to preserving African languages. But without active and effective intervention, the gentle clicks and hollow rolls of the tongue that are so distinctively South African, could fade into obscurity as the need to communicate at an international level takes priority over being able to tell a South African story, the South African way.

Foreign Language Instruction

South Africa’s close trade and industry ties with China and other BRICS nations could mean though, that Mandarin Chinese becomes even more important. A growing number of schools have started offering Mandarin Chinese as a learning subject already and, under the new language policy set out by the Department of Basic Education, it’ll become one of the Second Additional Languages that can be taught. Higher and Further Education institutions like Wits University already provide instructional courses in Mandarin Chinese so, it may not be too far off in the future where the language becomes more firmly entrenched into the South African curriculum. Sidebar It’s important to note that even Mark Zuckerberg, the head of global phenomenon, Facebook, has learnt Mandarin.

At an October 2014 Q&A session held in Beijing, Zuckerberg spoke fluently and comfortably in Mandarin. Owing to his familial ties through his marriage to Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg undertook to learn the language but the obvious positive effects of it in his business must also have come into play. It’s interesting to note though, that Zuckerberg elected to learn Mandarin, but his wife is reportedly more comfortable conversing in Cantonese. Perhaps his astute business skills had more to do with his linguistic learning than familial ties, indeed.

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