SAVE OUR MOTHER TONGUES

Our Con­sti­tu­tion says that all 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages have equal­ity be­fore the law, but the re­al­ity is they don’t. The Pan-South African Lan­guage Board aims to change that, writes Mmanaledi Mataboge-Mashetla

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

There is no po­lit­i­cal will to fully im­ple­ment the re­quire­ment of the Con­sti­tu­tion to give all of­fi­cial lan­guages equal sta­tus. This is the one point the Pan-South African Lan­guage Board (PanSALB) – es­tab­lished to pro­mote mul­ti­lin­gual­ism in the coun­try – and lan­guage ac­tivists agree on.

As South Africa ob­serves Lan­guage Month through­out Fe­bru­ary, the de­bate that will once again dom­i­nate what should ideally be a cel­e­bra­tion of lan­guages will be the fail­ure of the im­ple­men­ta­tion of poli­cies meant to pro­mote all lan­guages.

“We need the po­lit­i­cal will,” said CEO of PanSALB Rak­wena Mpho Monareng.

The Con­sti­tu­tion is clear that “all of­fi­cial lan­guages must en­joy par­ity of es­teem and must be treated eq­ui­tably” and “the na­tional govern­ment and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, by leg­isla­tive and other mea­sures, must reg­u­late and mon­i­tor the use of of­fi­cial lan­guages”.

The Con­sti­tu­tion fur­ther states that “recog­nis­ing the his­tor­i­cally di­min­ished use and sta­tus of the in­dige­nous lan­guages of our peo­ple, the state must take prac­ti­cal and pos­i­tive mea­sures to el­e­vate the sta­tus and ad­vance the use of these lan­guages”.

But this is not hap­pen­ing, even with lan­guage poli­cies that govern­ment de­part­ments and other im­por­tant in­sti­tu­tions have, said Monareng.

“The prob­lem is, do we want to do it? No. Do we fake it? Yes. And the longer we fake it, the more we make these lan­guages ob­so­lete,” he said.

Re­search and devel­op­ment man­ager at the Molteno In­sti­tute for Lan­guage and Lit­er­acy Jenny Katz said it was clear that govern­ment was over­whelmed by the 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages.

“Their hearts are in the right place, the pol­icy is there, but in re­al­ity, there’s no im­ple­men­ta­tion. It’s very much a case of be­ing over­whelmed.

“The Con­sti­tu­tion says all lan­guages are equal, but in re­al­ity this is dif­fi­cult to main­tain. In all prac­ti­cal­ity, it all be­comes an aca­demic ex­er­cise. In­dige­nous lan­guages are go­ing to die out be­cause the global lan­guages take over,” Katz said.

Though she said she was gen­er­ally in favour of chil­dren be­ing taught in their mother tongue, Katz said the part of the Con­sti­tu­tion about lan­guages was “unim­ple­mentable” and “un­re­al­is­tic” be­cause of the re­al­i­ties of peo­ple’s choices.

The PanSALB CEO said South Africa still stood a good chance of re­vers­ing the dam­age that had been done by fail­ing to treat in­dige­nous lan­guages with the same im­por­tance as English. “Yes, we can. The ques­tion is, do we want to do it?”

Monareng said a lot of “ide­o­log­i­cal dam­age” had been done to the world by sell­ing English as a dom­i­nant lan­guage when it wasn’t. “English has been in­flated to an ex­tent that we all started link­ing be­ing clever with speaking English.”

Govern­ment, he said, has played its part in cre­at­ing this per­cep­tion.

“If you look at the act or the law, you find that the English ver­sion is the one signed by the pres­i­dent. It’s be­cause this has be­come nor­mal, so no one sees any­thing wrong with that,” Monareng said.

PanSALB hopes that, through the Lan­guage Month cam­paign, South Africans will ac­knowl­edge the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing African lan­guages while pro­mot­ing mul­ti­lin­gual­ism.

“Peo­ple will tell you that you can­not do busi­ness in an African lan­guage, but there is no lan­guage that has been made for a par­tic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity. This has gone on for such a long time that it has been in­cul­cated in us to a point that we think the al­ter­na­tive is im­pos­si­ble,” said Monareng.

While Katz ar­gued that there weren’t enough ma­te­rial and books writ­ten in African lan­guages be­cause there was no mar­ket for them – and that authors find it dif­fi­cult to pub­lish be­cause of lack of stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of the in­dige­nous lan­guages – Monareng dif­fered.

“It’s not that there are no books – we made them dis­ap­pear. When busi­nesses start, they don’t come with cus­tomers, they make cus­tomers. We must make these lan­guages rel­e­vant,” he said.

Sa­bata-mpho Mokae, au­thor of Setswana nov­els and lec­turer at Sol Plaatje Univer­sity in Kimberley, said the em­pow­er­ment of lan­guages “re­lies largely on these lan­guages be­ing writ­ten. When you ap­ply for an iden­tity doc­u­ment, for in­stance, you must find the form in all the lan­guages. Govern­ment must en­sure that in ev­ery school, kids are taught in not only their mother tongue, but more lan­guages.” Mokae’s first Setswana novel, Ga Ke Modisa, has been pre­scribed at the North West Univer­sity and Cen­tral Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

Even with these chal­lenges, Monareng is con­fi­dent that Lan­guage Month will bear pos­i­tive fruit.

“The cam­paign is part of the re­vival of PanSALB. The in­ten­tion is to re­claim our lan­guages and put the lan­guage mat­ter where it mat­ters most, with the peo­ple,” he said.

“We want to hold in­sti­tu­tions ac­count­able when it comes to mul­ti­lin­gual­ism ... We want to en­sure that the knowl­edge-mak­ing process gives space to the coun­try’s in­dige­nous lan­guages. Knowl­edge in one lan­guage is not do­ing jus­tice to the wisdom brought by other lan­guages.”

PanSALB will now “up the game” to en­sure that African lan­guages have sta­tus in in­sti­tu­tions that mat­ter, the CEO said.

“We don’t want to be con­tro­ver­sial. We want to be prin­ci­pled.”

Mem­bers of the pub­lic are en­cour­aged to at­tend pub­lic hear­ings that will look at how far govern­ment de­part­ments have gone in us­ing in­dige­nous lan­guages.

Jab­u­lani Sime­lane and Dikeledi Nkhona at the launch of Lan­guage Month

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