Zimbabwe promotes minority languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Mar 8 15:56:45 UTC 2007

Promote Minority Languages

The Herald (Harare)  OPINION March 7, 2007 Posted to the web March 7, 2007

By Laura Chiweshe Harare

ZIMBABWE joined the rest of the world in celebrating the International
Mother Language Day on February 21, and it was a time to take stock of the
state of languages in the country today. The linguistic map of the country
is as a result of numerous factors, among which is the legacy of
colonialism. Colonialism relegated indigenous African languages to an
inferior status that saw them associated with backwardness and, in some
instances, paganism. Some Africans even began to despise their own mother
languages. The vernaculars, as they were pejoratively called, remained the
languages of traditional institutions - themselves looked down upon - such
as the chieftainship.

Recently Shona and Ndebele joined English as the national languages. In
addition to these three, there are no less than 10 local languages usually
referred to as "minority" languages. With the exception of one African
language, Tswawu, which is Khoisan spoken in the remote parts of Bulilima
District, the rest are Bantu languages. The latter category includes the
following: Kalanga, Tonga, Sotho (Birwa), Venda, Nyanja/Chewa, Shangani,
Hwesa, Nambya, Chikunda, Barwe, Sena and Xhosa. Large populations speak
some of the so-called minority languages across the borders. Tonga, which
is also spoken in Zambia, Kalanga and Birwa, also spoken in Botswana, and
Venda (also spoken in South Africa) are some of the languages that can be
considered international.

Sadly, very little co-operation has taken place among neighbouring
countries to enhance the status of the same languages in Zimbabwe where
they are marginalised. Masvingo State University is understood to have
sent some students to a university in the Limpopo Province of South Africa
to study Tsonga, Shangani and Venda. Hopefully, when the students come
back they will undertake the teaching of the "minority" languages that
they would have studied. However, what is needed in Zimbabwe today is the
political will, which should translate into the release of funds for use
in developing teaching materials for the so-called minority languages.
Policy is also needed to ensure teachers of the same languages are
admitted into teacher training colleges so that upon completion of their
courses they may be deployed to teach the languages in which they will
have been trained.

Half-hearted efforts were made to teach the "minority" languages in
primary schools up to Grade Seven. It, however, does not appear that the
programme will be pursued beyond Grade Seven. This makes a mockery of the
introduction of the languages at primary school level in the first place.
Pupils who would have one of these languages at primary school level would
have to start doing Shona or Ndebele at secondary school.

Such pupils are obviously disadvantaged.

The efforts by Masvingo State University, while laudable, will need
tangible political support and meaningful resource allocation for them to
be sustainable. Impediments to the introduction of the teaching of
minority languages include lack of teaching materials and competent
manpower to handle the subjects at secondary school level. The publishing
industry operates along business lines and will certainly not publish
materials that will not, on account of small print runs, enable the
business enterprises to break even. It is Government that has the
responsibility to subsidise the production of learning materials. A
clear-cut language policy that will be taken seriously should be put in
place, if that has not been done already.

One hopes that grandiose imperial motives will not stand in the way of
development and nurturing of the so-called minority languages. Our
seriousness in and commitment to promoting our cultures will be tested
through our performance in the matter of "minority" languages. Language is
the embodiment of a people's culture and identity. This is why soon after
independence there was heightened interest in matters of language.
Pressure organisations such as VETOKA, led by Millie Nsala-Malaba, came
into being. Even now there is such a pressure group led by, among others,
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu. Silveira House in Harare has been trying to assist in
the development of the "minority" languages.

Mrs Tisa Chifunyise had also been working tirelessly to develop teaching
materials for the Tonga language. Following her death, the efforts seem to
have come to naught. Well-wishers and non-governmental organisations may
assist as much as they can, but in the absence of political commitment
their efforts will be stillborn. By celebrating the International Mother
Language Day, Zimbabwe ought to engage in some introspection and sincere
soul-searching to find whether it speaks from the heart or the mouth. The
continued existence of languages, even the so-called minority languages,
is one of the fundamental human rights that all democratic nations should



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