Sav­ing mi­nor­ity lan­guages

CityPress - - Voices - SIBU­SISO NKOSI voices@city­press.co.za

In 2009, a deaf ma­tric­u­lant at Westville Boys’ High School in KwaZulu-Natal, Kyle Springate, with­drew his le­gal bid to force the depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion to al­low him to take sign lan­guage as a sub­ject. This is but one ex­am­ple of how the deaf com­mu­nity has suf­fered over the past 23 years, try­ing to ex­er­cise its con­sti­tu­tional right.

How­ever, their strug­gles will soon be over as Par­lia­ment’s port­fo­lio com­mit­tee on con­sti­tu­tional re­view grap­ples with mak­ing the South African Sign Lan­guage (SASL) the 12th official lan­guage in the coun­try.

As the Pan South African Lan­guage Board (PanSALB) and other con­cerned or­gan­i­sa­tions are cel­e­brat­ing this pos­i­tive step taken by the con­sti­tu­tional re­view com­mit­tee, the re­al­ity is that there is still a long, wind­ing road ahead of us be­fore any tan­gi­ble change can be felt.

Es­pe­cially if one takes into con­sid­er­a­tion that the com­mit­tee must ta­ble its pro­posal to the Na­tional As­sem­bly and Na­tional Coun­cil of Prov­inces to amend sec­tions 6(1) and (5)(a) to in­clude SASL as an official lan­guage.

This is in­deed a pos­i­tive re­sponse, not only to the deaf com­mu­ni­ties but also to the en­tire coun­try, par­tic­u­larly to those who wish to study sign lan­guage.

Sadly, it is too lit­tle too late for peo­ple such as Springate who, eight years ago, wanted to take sign lan­guage as a sub­ject for his ma­tric stud­ies.

The depart­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion and other gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions might find it tough to es­cape the pend­ing changes to the Con­sti­tu­tion. In the end they will have to adapt to the changes or face the con­se­quences. This may also ex­tend to the pri­vate sec­tor.

As we await these changes, ques­tions are be­ing asked about the prospects of Khoi, Nama and San lan­guages, as it was re­cently re­vealed dur­ing the PanSALB na­tional con­fer­ence on indige­nous lan­guages that there is a Khoi lan­guage fam­ily, but no San lan­guage fam­ily.

What this means is that the way these indige­nous lan­guages are cat­e­gorised in the Con­sti­tu­tion might be in­cor­rect and that would re­quire an amend­ment. These are not the only chal­lenges with these indige­nous lan­guages. For in­stance, re­search re­veals that there are only 13 indige­nous lan­guages of Bush­men and Khoi spo­ken to­day; many be­came ex­tinct over the past 100 years.

One of the indige­nous lan­guages which is fac­ing ex­tinc­tion is Nluu. It is spo­ken by four fam­ily mem­bers in Uping­ton, North­ern Cape, with Ka­t­rina Esau be­ing the most ac­tive in teach­ing her her­itage lan­guage to chil­dren and com­mu­nity mem­bers.

While we cel­e­brate this progress, let us think of these van­ish­ing lan­guages.

As Mex­i­can poet Oc­tavio Paz put it: “For every lan­guage that be­comes ex­tinct, an im­age of man dis­ap­pears.”

Nkosi is head of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion at

PanSALB, writ­ing in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity

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