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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Towards promoting African languages in a multilingual context

Sandile Gxilishe - 2009-05-06


The article traces the history of marginalisation of African languages, including South African languages. It highlights some of the challenges facing attempts to develop African languages in respect of literature, language and linguistics. We further discuss the prevalent preference for English and other colonial languages as languages of communication and instruction by the present rulers of Africa. This is done to the neglect of African languages spoken in these countries. The paper, on the other hand, gives examples of nations that have successfully used their native languages for higher language functions, for example in government, education and business. The writer points out the dangers of neglecting the use of one’s native language. Suggestions are made about the role that Afrikaans can play in the development of African languages. The paper points out that the historical experience of fighting against the English language can play a leading role in a collective movement which seeks to redress its linguistic inequality.



It is said that of all the elements which best characterise an individual, from physical appearance to clothing, language is the most obvious. It is through language that we convey our ideas. Language stands, indeed, as the key component and the barometer of our development (Alexander 2005:12).

Decades after the political "independences", the situation of African languages keeps on widening inequalities in the fields of science, technique and technology. African languages have not been used for economic value or, at most times, in higher functions, namely in economic, cultural and practical situations.


Colonial languages

In many postcolonial territories, high-status knowledge is associated with the former colonial language, be it English, French or Portuguese. Consequently, the languages of the indigenous people have been devalued in favour of the former colonial languages as legitimate vehicles for importing knowledge. The language of the colonial rulers – the medium through which schooling was rendered – was recognised by many colonised peoples as an important, and perhaps the only, vehicle for individual advancement in the society.

Africans viewed the colonial language, the only sanctioned medium for government, commerce and postprimary school education, as a vehicle for receiving prestige in the society.


South Africa pre-1994

In South Africa pre-1994, the development of African languages was restricted, in contrast to the development of Afrikaans, which in less than 25 years became the language of instruction in several universities (Roy-Campbell 2008:69). Xhosa, for example, first became a written language in 1824, whereas the first literary work in Afrikaans was in 1832. Commenting on the strategy of the Afrikaans regime, Cluver pointed out that the government never intended to develop African languages into fully standardised languages. It sought to limit them to use within the family, cultural group, the Bantustan and the school (Cluver 1991:6). South Africa then was a multilingual country with a history of deliberately constructed policies directed at dividing the population with ethnic cleavages. The policies of the previous government favouring English and Afrikaans have been recorded and that era has since passed and a new policy of multilingualism has been adopted.


Multilingual policy

The new postdemocratic Constitution of South Africa articulates a multilingual language policy very clearly. It offers flexibility within regions for developing language policies. South Africa has pointed the way forward for other African countries, with its 11 official languages policy. This policy made a significant break with the rigid policy of Afrikaans-English bilingualism that existed during the apartheid years.

According to the postapartheid Constitution, language policy must recognise the historically diminished use status of the indigenous languages by the South African people, and the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages. It also states that all these official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and be treated equitably. In theory, the postapartheid Constitution commits the government to building on an underlying philosophy of pluralism and linguistic human rights by pursuing a policy of multilingualism (Pretorius 1999).



Despite the above good intentions by the government, a crisis is looming in South Africa regarding the preservation, maintenance and associated identity of our indigenous African languages. Indigenous languages are under siege. University students are saying farewell to South African indigenous tongues as they turn their backs on studying African languages. The classes have dwindled, because few people today consider teaching an attractive profession. Until 1994 many students studied African languages as part of a teaching degree. Departments of African languages are closing down because student numbers have fallen drastically. The number of student enrolments in official indigenous African languages at universities and technikons has recorded a dramatic decline of about 50 percent since 1999.

Few books are published in indigenous languages. There is no market for them. Today, speakers of African languages are not keen to read literature written in indigenous languages. The only book that sells well in African languages is the Bible. South African indigenous literature, for example, has for long not provided mature commentary on the society in which we live. During the missionary era (1799–1860), missionary influence was an inhibiting factor in the natural development of literature in Xhosa, home language to about 18 percent of South Africans, especially in so far as thematic repertoire is concerned. The history of Xhosa literature, for example, shows that the collapse of the newspaper industry in the 20th century led to direct missionary control over publishing of Xhosa books and hence the loss of independence of the book in Xhosa literature, at least in terms of thematic repertoire. Authors were encouraged to write about specific topics in a didactic and Christian way. Anything traditional was to be condemned as heathen. This colonial attitude has, consciously and subconsciously, been perpetuated by many Xhosa authors themselves until recently, as may be seen in numerous works which deal with the conflict between indigenous and Western value systems, and where the Western ethic prevails. For example, in Tamsanqa’s drama Buzani Kubawo (Ask Father) (1958) and Sinxo’s novel UNomsa (Nomsa) (1922), traditional marriages are portrayed as unworkable. The material published was parochial, apolitical and neutral in style. Only apolitical novels were published in the indigenous languages. African literature written in indigenous languages was for long aimed at the school market and only law-abiding and conservative material was fed into the school market by the system.

Parents in townships equate education with competency in English. The value of African languages has been diminished as many young educated black people view English as the language of aspiration, while government and parents steer learners towards science- and maths-oriented professions.

Mother-tongue education is South Africans' missing link. And indeed its importance for the reduction of inequality through the economic and social development of the majority of South African citizens cannot be underestimated. African languages spoken in South Africa continue to remain a largely untapped resource as far as contributing to societal development is concerned because of this factor.


Preference for English

The strong preference for English instead of African languages in the formal sectors of society, both private and public, continues unabated in general social practice. English is becoming the de facto lingua franca not only as the medium of television and education but also in other domains as well, such as Parliament, the courts and the army (Kamwangamalu 2000:55). In these domains, as in education and television, Afrikaans and the African languages lag far behind English. Pandor reported that in 1994, 87 percent of the speeches made in Parliament were in English; fewer than five percent were in Afrikaans and the remaining ones were in the nine African languages, that is fewer than one percent in each of these languages.

It is often claimed that indigenous African languages do not possess the requisite registers for (Western) science and scholarship or other high-status functions. However, as Gough (1999) points out, the reverse is at least equally true. Indigenous African languages possess many specialised registers that are not available to speakers of English and other non-African languages. As examples, the writer mentions the rhetoric employed in various ceremonies like releasing the widow, opening a homestead, traditional legal discourse, in praise poetry or even a folk tale (Gough 1991:17). We need only think, for instance, within the field of Indigenous Knowledge Systems of the specialised registers associated with traditional healing practices or with the use of indigenous technologies.

All the successful societies of Asia and Europe are societies which use their own languages. The fact that people use their own languages contributes immensely to their development endeavours in all societies. The fact that English is a universal language does not mean that Danish people, who are no more than five million people, use English or French, even though these languages are more universal. The Malaysians, who attained their independence within six months of Ghana’s independence, today use Bahasa on a wide scale. The Indonesians, who were also colonised by the Dutch, also do not use Dutch; they use Bahasa. Since Hong Kong reverted back to China, Chinese has rapidly been replacing English in Hong Kong (Prah 2001).

If we as Africans want to culturally and educationally empower the masses of Africa, we have to take knowledge to the masses in languages of their native historical experience and creativity. Unless we do this, there is no chance of advancement. Until we do this, we will be forever culturally tied to the linguistic and cultural apron strings of the former imperial masters of the world.

There is an estimate, writes Prah (2001:12), by a linguist from Alaska in Fairbanks who projects that in another 100 years, 95 percent of the currently spoken speech forms in the world will be extinct. When he says something like that, he does not mean English, French, Dutch, Chinese or Bahasa. He means the languages of the dregs of the Third World. The moment our African languages become extinct, we cease culturally as Africans to exist. We vanish into history. We become culturally part of the world whose language we have adopted. Culturally we would be totally denationalised. That danger is serious.

Only when Africans take their languages more seriously will they join Afrikaans, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Hebrew, into which knowledge is translated and from which knowledge is translated into European and other languages.

African leaders and educators could be concerned about how to merge the use of African languages with the use of the European languages. Emphasis in the first instance, however, must be on elevating the status of African languages. It is important to illustrate to Africans and others alike that African languages are capable of functioning in the production and reproduction of knowledge that can propel the development of the African continent. Already there are lexicographic units. Terminology development is taking place. Research in Human Language Technology in respect of African languages is also taking place. In short, some reawakening is occurring.


Role of Afrikaans

A model of national integration which seeks to counter the hegemonic dominance of the English language in South Africa ideally requires that speakers of all marginalised languages work together in mutually reinforcing collective self-interest. It has been argued that an alliance of marginalised language speakers is imperative in this regard and that Afrikaans speakers, with their historical experience of fighting (largely successfully) against English language hegemony, have the opportunity to play a leading role in a collective movement which seeks to redress the linguistic inequality which characterises present-day South African society. In this regard Alexander notes:

Afrikaans can play a key role in establishing democracy in South Africa if it shares its assets and privileges with other native languages […] Afrikaans speakers must step into partnership with other African language speakers. Not because the speakers of Afrikaans, or the Language itself, are too weak, but because this is the only way to avoid a new ethnic-based language struggle. The new South Africa cannot afford to consciously promote division. Language policy can divide or it can reconcile and integrate. Paradoxically, history offers Afrikaans speakers the opportunity […] to strengthen and support unity in the diversity of South African society. (Alexander 2001a:9–11)

Furthermore, it has also been suggested that the development of Afrikaans from a highly stigmatised, lowly "kitchen vernacular" to that of a standard language of science, technology and government may serve as an exemplar for the development of, and acquisition of higher domains by, the currently marginalised African languages (Schlemer and Giliomee 2001:5).

We are beginning to see transformation through black-run printing presses such as Skotaville, Vivlia and BARD publishers. This sets the scene where African literature can be liberated from its past to develop naturally. If the elevation of indigenous languages as equal-status languages achieves increased literacy in these languages among all South Africans, this will result in a wider adult readership which, in turn, will encourage the publication of more creative works which do not cater only for the school market.

In conclusion, for true multilingualism to prevail in our country, we should strive for a situation where every South African citizen has a useful knowledge of English, Afrikaans and one or more African language. Such a genuinely multilingual citizenry which has a multilingual repertoire, broadly representative of the composite linguistic communities of the South African population at its disposal, would signify considerable progress towards the achievement of the linguistic equality envisaged in the Constitution. It would also be a great facilitator of communication between citizens of diverse linguistic backgrounds. Such a scenario would clearly provide more fertile ground for the emergence of sentiments of social unity and for the development of community relations, without which democratic national integration will remain a faint prospect (Orman 2008).



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—. The role of African universities in the intellectualisation of

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* Hierdie artikel vorm deel van die SBA se KKNK-gespreksreeks: Meertaligheid in Suid-Afrika – wat is prakties haalbaar?