Ready to speak in many tongues

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 21 15:19:43 UTC 2005

Ready to speak in many tongues

    May 20 2005 at 11:09AM

By Aurelia Dyantyi

Many are huffing and puffing at Education Minister Naledi Pandor's
announcement that it is time to make the learning of an indigenous African
language compulsory in schools - but others are over the moon. Pandor's
emphasis on the development of the other nine official languages during
her budget speech this week has created confusion - and the assumption by
some that English and Afrikaans do not have a future in local education.
But to some, her supercharged speech was music to their ears.

According to Pandor, it was planned to introduce indigenous languages as a
second-language subject choice in schools. If 35 pupils in a high school,
or 40 in a primary school, indicated their desire to be taught a specific
indigenous language, then their school would be compelled to introduce it
as a subject choice. As many privileged schools began trying to figure out
how to implement the language policy, Parktown Boys' High School principal
Tom Clarke said he was pleased that his school had introduced isiZulu as
an additional language choice more than 15 years ago.

He explained that at the school, pupils were able to choose a second
language between Afrikaans and isiZulu, while English remained their first
language. Nicholas Welsh, 18, a student at Wits University and a graduate
of Parktown Boys' High, supported the minister's stand on indigenous
languages. Welsh, who speaks isiZulu fluently, said the policy would
afford more South Africans, regardless of race, an opportunity to learn
more than two languages.

Welsh began learning isiZulu, which was a compulsory third language at
Maryvale College, from Grade 1. When he reached high school, taking
isiZulu as a second language was a natural choice. "I come from a family
that has a long history of speaking isiZulu. My great-grandfather and my
grandfather spoke isiZulu as their first language. This has been a family
tradition, even though my father is not fluent in the language. "It was
natural for me to take isiZulu as a second language, instead of Afrikaans,
when I got to high school," explained Welsh.

Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Johannesburg and speaking an
indigenous language allowed him to make friends easily, he said. A
first-year BA student, one of his subjects is linguistics, so that he can
broaden his understanding of other indigenous African languages. The head
of the unit for language development at the Tshwane University of
Technology, Professor Christo Janse van Rensburg, is ecstatic about the
implementation of the language policy in schools.

He said language proficiency in South Africa was at its lowest due to the
move away from indigenous languages. By reintroducing them to schools,
most South Africans stood to benefit, Janse van Rensburg explained. "The
kind of English you hear or see written by many young South Africans is
past poor. We have a lot of people in this country who are illiterate in
all the languages.

"You can only learn other languages once you have mastered your mother
tongue," said Janse van Rensburg. He confirmed that at tertiary level,
interest in indigenous African languages had waned. However, he was
confident that the new policy would generate interest at all levels.
Lecturer Ndela Ntshangase, of the School of isiZulu Studies at the
University of KwaZulu Natal, said this policy would lead to preservation
of all indigenous languages and would afford them the same status
currently enjoyed by English.

"We need to promote our indigenous languages. A short-term goal will be to
start teaching those who are new to these languages at all levels, even at

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