South Africa: English Drowns Out Pandor's African Language Dream

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 13 14:08:43 UTC 2007

English Drowns Out Pandor's African Language Dream

Business Day (Johannesburg)
12 June 2007
Posted to the web 12 June 2007

By Sue Blaine

IF EDUCATION Minister Naledi Pandor's dream of more school pupils
studying African languages and being taught in their own language is
to come true, more matriculants will have to be enticed to study these
languages after school in order to become teachers.
While numbers are hard to come by, most African language lecturers
agree the number of students studying African languages is low, and
often declining. The number of students learning Zulu, SA's most
widely spoken language, at the University of SA -- the country's
largest and arguably most accessible university -- tells the story.

Last year, three students signed up for Applied isiZulu First Language
II, and none did this year. There was one student enrolled for isiZulu
Third Language last year and none this year. Three signed up for
isiZulu Third Language I last year and none this year. There was
growth, however, in Practical isiZulu, from 10 last year to 29 this
year, but this is a course aimed at non-mother tongue speakers who
wish to acquire basic competency -- not enough to teach a language, or
teach in a language. Experts say the decline in student numbers is
linked to political change, English's dominance in trade and industry,
and African language departments' history of presenting their subject
in a staid, old-fashioned manner concentrated on grammar, syntax and
"pure" forms of the languages.

The massive changes in SA's political make-up, and especially the
dissolution of the bantustans, has meant that African language
departments need to work harder to attract students, says Prof Theo du
Plessis, head of the University of the Free State's Unit for Language
Management. In the past, students who had an eye on securing
themselves a job in a homeland's civil service needed to learn the
language, and learn it well, he says.
"Now they (African languages) are important languages of socialisation
and identity, but they are not seen as important languages for the
higher domains (of) government administration, legislation, justice
and education," says Du Plessis.

Linked to this is the problem created by English's position as the
national and international business lingua franca. "Choices around
studying languages are influenced mainly by job opportunities. Many
prefer to take English, no matter how good their English is," says
Prof Sizwe Satyo, head of African languages at the University of Cape
Town's School of Languages.

Pandor has been outspoken about the importance of the education
department's language policy, which wants children to learn in their
mother tongue for at least the first three years of school when
concept-formation is crucial; to ensure all young people are able to
speak and write in a language other than their mother tongue -- for
most this will be English -- and to ensure they are able to
communicate in a third, indigenous, language. But if the universities
cannot secure more enrolments in African language study, Pandor's
vision will come to nothing. "Five years from now there will be an
absolute shortage of language teachers and it will take 10 years to
correct that," says Russell Kaschula, head of Rhodes University's
African languages department.

Few matriculants view teaching as a first-choice career and Pandor's
allocation this year of R700m for teacher bursaries, to be spent over
the next three years, is part of a government attempt to renew
interest in the profession. African language experts hope their
departments will also benefit from the bursaries. "Last year, out of a
class of 70 or 80 isiXhosa students whom I asked about going into
teaching, only one or two put their hands up. Most were going into
journalism, pharmacy or law. I suspect that there will be a change
next year. I suspect a lot will be on a teaching bursary," says

He says he has noticed renewed interest in African languages,
something also picked up by Mhlobo Jadezweni, who has lectured in the
University of Stellenbosch's African languages department since 1983,
and Tessa Dowling, who has a PhD in Xhosa and runs African Voices, a
business which creates learning materials. "I can feel the pendulum
swinging again (to interest in African languages). There is a new
dynamism ... People are questioning what we are doing and the
advertising industry is doing quite a lot (that reflects aspects of
African culture)," Kaschula says. Indicative of this is the fact that
Educor's Vega School of Brand Advertising Communications introduced
compulsory lectures in African languages -- Xhosa in Cape Town, Zulu
in Durban and Zulu and Sotho in Johannesburg -- last year.

"It's important to have socio-cultural knowledge in the advertising
field. It's very important to understand the market's culture and
language," says Molli Mbeyiya, librarian and Ulimi Lwami Language
Centre "navigator" at Vega's Cape Town school. Universities too need
to investigate modern society and use what is happening in society to
bring interest to their language courses, says Jadezweni. "Why ignore
the contemporary? There's a huge (public sector) strike going on; use
that to stimulate discussion in your classes. In your selection of
literature there are works that have literary merit and relevance to
students' lives," he says.

"Also, we always forget to internationalise African languages. I have
taught Xhosa in Germany and that experience has been awesome, awesome.
They see language as universal and human; you study it like that."

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