Enock Shishenge

CityPress - - Voices -

Our African in­dige­nous lan­guages are erod­ing in­stead of thriv­ing. The Pan SA Lan­guage Board has de­clared Fe­bru­ary to be Lan­guage Ac­tivism Month as part of cel­e­bra­tions lead­ing to In­ter­na­tional Mother Lan­guage Day on Fe­bru­ary 21.

It is a pos­i­tive ges­ture as it sig­nals com­mit­ment to pro­mot­ing in­dige­nous lan­guages and mul­ti­lin­gual­ism in South Africa.

The well-known ob­sta­cle that un­der­mines the pro­mo­tion and pro­tec­tion of in­dige­nous lan­guages is the colo­nial legacy em­bed­ded in the lan­guage which dom­i­nates daily life in South Africa: English.

In his book, The 11 Of­fi­cial Lan­guages: An Ad­van­tage for SA, Dr Paul Nkuna writes: “Colo­nial­ism refers to the build­ing of colonies in one ter­ri­tory by peo­ple from an­other ter­ri­tory.”

We have moved from phys­i­cal coloni­sa­tion to what I call a soft coloni­sa­tion. The English lan­guage has suc­cess­fully built its ter­ri­tory in our ter­ri­to­ries and con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate our in­dige­nous lan­guages.

We seem de­ter­mined to ap­ply our­selves to be­com­ing adept at English, at the ex­pense of per­fect­ing our skills in our mother tongues. In do­ing so, we fail to see the sys­temic ex­ploita­tion in­her­ent in such ac­tions and play our part, how­ever un­con­sciously, in hold­ing back the devel­op­ment of our in­dige­nous lan­guages. It is only through speak­ing our lan­guages and learn­ing them at school that we can change the sta­tus quo.

Even in busi­ness we con­duct among our­selves, we use this other lan­guage. We pray, study and even fa­cil­i­tate our mar­riages in the colo­nial lan­guage. We do not as­so­ciate the things that seem im­por­tant in our daily lives with our home lan­guages.

Why do we con­tinue to em­brace the colo­nial legacy of lan­guage when we rail against ev­ery other colo­nial byprod­uct?

As long as there is dom­i­na­tion of one lan­guage by an­other, we will al­ways be an un­equal so­ci­ety. Most pri­vate and for­mer model C schools do not of­fer learn­ers the choice of an African lan­guage, and par­ents still re­joice in their chil­dren study­ing Afrikaans and English.

Th­ese par­ents see noth­ing wrong with the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs. And we Africans are com­plicit in main­tain­ing this sit­u­a­tion be­cause we re­main in a state of de­nial that our lan­guages are im­por­tant.

What ex­am­ple are we set­ting our chil­dren? The an­swer is sadly ev­i­dent: they do not take their mother tongues se­ri­ously.

Re­gard­less of the lan­guage poli­cies which aca­demics de­signed on be­half of the demo­cratic gov­ern­ment which came to power in 1994, lit­tle has been done to pro­tect and pro­mote our in­dige­nous lan­guages since then.

The state needs to en­sure that all of our coun­try’s lan­guage in­sti­tu­tions have poli­cies in place deal­ing with the devel­op­ment of in­dige­nous lan­guages. The no­tion of ‘an English school’ should come to an end and pri­vate schools should of­fer in­dige­nous lan­guages as an in­te­gral part of their cur­ricu­lums.

Our lan­guages are de­val­ued not only by those who ben­e­fit from the colo­nial legacy, but also by our­selves – the ones who are dis­ad­van­taged by this. And it goes right to the top. Al­though Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma is flu­ent in isiZulu, his na­tive tongue, he does not speak it at of­fi­cial cer­e­monies, de­spite it be­ing one of our 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages.

By de­liv­er­ing at least one im­por­tant speech in his mother tongue – or any of the other in­dige­nous lan­guages – Zuma would set the ex­am­ple of plac­ing in­dige­nous lan­guages on an equal foot­ing with English.

Aca­demic and ac­tivist Dr Mam­phela Ram­phele hits the nail on the head when she says: “Lan­guage is not only the medium of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but also a means of cul­tural her­itage trans­mis­sion be­tween gen­er­a­tions.”

Our lan­guages are our her­itage. If the state is se­ri­ous about mul­ti­lin­gual­ism, why does it not add a few in­dige­nous lan­guages – such as Se­sotho, Se­pedi or Tshiv­enda – to schools’ lists of com­pul­sory sub­jects? We need to in­vest in hav­ing our youth learn our lan­guages in the way we in­vest in equip­ping schools with tablets and smart boards.

Mul­ti­lin­gual­ism can be pro­moted in schools. For in­stance, in a drama class, plays writ­ten in our lan­guages can be stud­ied and learn­ers can be en­cour­aged to per­form mul­ti­lin­gual roles. De­bates and pub­lic-speak­ing com­pe­ti­tions can be turned into mul­ti­lin­gual events rather than the stan­dard English-only oc­ca­sion. And the depart­ment of arts and cul­ture, through its Na­tional Arts Coun­cil, should also fund school projects aimed at pro­mot­ing mul­ti­lin­gual­ism.

South Africa’s pub­lic and pri­vate broad­cast­ers should of­fer pro­grammes that pro­mote our lan­guages. A case in point is The Papa Penny Ahee! re­al­ity show, which de­buted on Mzansi Magic last month and doc­u­ments the life of pop­u­lar Shangaan mu­si­cian Eric Nko­vani. The pro­duc­ers missed a golden op­por­tu­nity: in­stead of pro­mot­ing his mother tongue, Xit­songa, they got him to speak English, al­beit in his own unique way.

They should take ex­am­ples from the pro­duc­ers of soapies such as Isi­baya and Mu­vhango, where mul­ti­lin­gual­ism and in­dige­nous lan­guages are com­mon prac­tice. Th­ese shows punt the power of self-ex­pres­sion.

With the birth of democ­racy came 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages, but only one is given of­fi­cial sta­tus. It is time to give in­dige­nous lan­guages as much clout as we do English. Shishenge is lan­guage ac­tivist at

Wena In­sti­tute

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