South Africa: Proper use of mother-tongue the way forward

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 16 16:30:29 UTC 2008

Proper use of mother-tongue the way forward

    April 21 2008 at 01:56PM

In this article in our series, Neville Alexander, director of the
project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa at the
University of Cape Town, argues that to ignore the language issue is
to entrench the domination of powerful elites. South Africa has
arguably the most progressive language policy on paper. This fact is
acknowledged by most people who are familiar with the sociology and
the politics of language. In spite of this, however, if one reads only
the Afrikaans press, one would have to conclude that this language
policy is a total failure and that we are moving rapidly to a
situation where the de facto sole official language is the "hated"
Queen's English.

The reader would be surprised, therefore, to hear that some of us hold
the unpalatable view that, because of what we call our "languish
policy", this country is in fact simply carrying out in practice a
neo-apartheid language policy. For, in spite of the fact that
Afrikaans is being driven out of many domains of social life and being
replaced by English, it is still the most favoured official language
next to English. Why is language policy important? And why is it a bad
idea that we should all be forced to operate in English only when we
transact business or are involved in any public domain?

The simple way to answer this is by means of a five-dimensional
argument. Incidentally, although there is a very important polemic
taking place among linguists about the exact meaning and even the
validity of a word such as "a language", this is not the place to
enter into that debate. Suffice to say it is an important debate that
may eventually lead to significant changes in the ways we speak or
write about the language question. The fact is that I am writing this
article in Standard South African English, and expect to be read and
understood by hundreds of South Africans and other users of a notional
international standard written English.

Many of these readers, I expect, will tell others, who either have not
read or cannot read the article, about its contents in whatever
linguistic means they have in common. And, somehow, for my current
communicative purposes, this seems to be in order. The
five-dimensional argument refers to the relationship between language
use and language policy with the social processes of diversity,
development, democracy, dignity and didactics.  It is generally
accepted that cultural diversity, which includes linguistic diversity,
is as necessary an aspect of human survival as is biological
diversity. This point is the subject of much controversy, but it is
bound to prove useful for our understanding of the continuum between
"nature" and "culture".

This debate, which is as yet confined to a small group of linguists
concerned about the rapid disappearance of "languages" on Earth may
yet turn out to be one of those revolutionary moments in humanity's
self-understanding such as the, initially quite esoteric, discussions
that led to the Copernican Revolution, as a result of which we now
know that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way
around. In this regard, because of our constitutional commitment to
the promotion and maintenance of multilingualism, South Africa is, in
principle, on the side of the angels.

It is also accepted that language policy at the workplace and in
business transactions generally is a vital aspect of economic success.
Languages have market value - hence the desirability of English as the
most important of the global languages today - and it is one of the
tasks of any national or regional government to frame language policy
and use it in such a way that the populace at large is empowered by
the fact that the linguistic resources which they possess become
"cultural capital" that they can use to earn their livelihood and to
improve their life chances.

Much detailed research is essential in this regard since politicians
tend to "find" the will to act once they are convinced that there is
real economic benefit in a given policy approach. Our score in this
area is quite bad since, with some notable exceptions in both the
public and the private sector, there is a very strong tendency towards
an English-only policy, although it self-evidently restricts the
productivity, efficiency, creativity and job satisfaction of those
engaged in the economic processes of production, exchange and

It is probably useful to remind ourselves here that it is a myth that
only "unilingual" countries have become economically successful in the
modern world. If you study the question seriously, you will find that
it is the levels of literacy that determine economic success in the
modern world. Democratic polities require the full participation of
the citizens in the important decision-making processes. It is
axiomatic that such participation is only possible when these
processes are conducted in languages that the citizens understand and
are able to use. This is the very foundation of freedom of speech.
Again, our balance sheet is patchy, even though I believe there is a
genuine commitment on the part of government to move in the right

Parliament and the SABC are examples where, recently, major steps have
been taken towards treating the official languages as well as sign
language equitably.  However, because of a simplistic, short-sighted
knee-jerk reaction to Afrikaans (as the "language of the oppressor"),
many obvious steps that ought to, and can, be taken are skipped. It is
incomprehensible, for example, that we still do not use African
languages on our airlines or on our beaches (except when we need to
warn people about dangerous circumstances or behaviour); why can we
not also have road signs and official instructions in numerous
contexts in the relevant African languages? That difficult decisions
would have to be made is clear, but we have to make these all the
time, whether it is in the domains of transport, health, crime
fighting or education. Much more urgency is required.

Human dignity, the right to use the language of one's choice and not
to be discriminated against on the basis of language, is inscribed in
the Bill of Rights and there are institutions such as the Pan South
African Language Board, the Human Rights Commission, the Cultural,
Religious and Linguistic Commission and, in the final analysis, the
judiciary, that have been given the powers to enforce these
provisions. Despite this, however, and in spite of numerous complaints
about the violation of language rights, mainly from organised
Afrikaans-speaking and other smaller African language-speaking
communities, these provisions remain a dead letter. The example of the
European Union and the Council of Europe, in spite of a yawning
disparity of resources, is there to show the way and we have in fact
learnt much from post-war Europe in this regard. There are close
connections at all levels between Europeans, Asians, Americans and
South Africans who are committed to the implementation of a
consistently democratic language policy.

A mother tongue-based bi- or multilingual educational system, the
didactical dimension of the language question, is the sine qua non for
all development in South Africa. Space does not allow any further
explanation of this proposition, but it is essential that it be seen
as the challenge it is intended to be. Besides the obvious pedagogical
issue of teaching children in languages they understand rather than in
those they do not understand, this question involves the critical and
urgent question of early literacy learning which, if you think about
it carefully, is the basis of economic success or failure in the 21st

The Western Cape Education Department has begun to take this challenge
seriously and is involved in numerous initiatives to find out what the
problems and the most effective approaches to solutions would be. The
national Department of Education supports these moves in principle.
However, language policy in education is a sensitive matter, and most
parents do not have the necessary information at their disposal in
order to make the most appropriate decisions in this regard. A major
advocacy campaign is imperative.

In conclusion, beyond the issue of political will and the
prioritisation of the language question, we should be looking more
carefully at how language policy and use are being managed currently.
The Asmal Commission that considered the efficacy of the Chapter 9
institutions has not been very kind to the Pan South African Language
Board, which was intended to be the keystone in the linguistic
architecture of the new South Africa. Whether one agrees with all its
recommendations or not, I believe that a case can be made out for a
radical redrafting of this entire complex.

Without language communication, hardly any complex operations are
possible for human beings. To ignore the language question or to take
it for granted is merely to entrench the domination of the powerful
elites in our society. Above all, let us agree: it is not a question
of the highest levels of competence in either English or the mother
tongues. It is a question of all individuals having the power to
communicate, learn, work and be creative in both the mother tongue and
English. Many, of course, will want - and be able - to function in
more than two languages.

This article was originally published on page 9 of Cape Times on April
21, 2008
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