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