South Africa: Language is a tricky issue, and it should not be left to legislators, administrators and party heavyweights, argues Nigel Fox.

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 4 15:48:56 UTC 2008

Fox's Earth: Ufuna ukukhuluma nobani?*
03 June 2008

Language is a tricky issue, and it should not be left to legislators,
administrators and party heavyweights, argues Nigel Fox.
As a country with 11 official languages and more, such as signing,
potentially on the way, why are we so bad at communicating with each
other? Personally, I think it is because the people who are taking
decisions about language and enforcing them have no expertise or
ability in this complex and highly charged field.  The major problem
with language policy is that it is a political issue. Party
heavyweights, speaking from their own partisan viewpoint, decide on it
at the highest level. Then it gets passed down, carved on tablets of
stone, for the functionaries to implement with rigour.

The key failing is that legislators and administrators aren't
communicators, they are pontificators by nature. In a structure that
operates in an authoritarian style, the people at the top are always
right in whatever they may say or decide. The Pope isn't alone in his
infallibility.  Take the school pledge as an example. I have no
problem with the concept, it works well in many countries as a builder
of patriotism and pride in the nation. But as someone who has dealt
with students for years, the flaws are glaringly obvious.
My problems begin with the first word - 'We'. As soon as you give
youngsters a group responsibility, they immediately assume that
someone else will do it. They, personally and individually, see it as
a get-out-of-jail card for doing nothing.

Next is the phrase - 'the youth of South Africa'. Typical old fart
language when talking to younger people. The shutters go up instantly
because they are being 'talked down to'. I'm not going to go through
the whole thing word by word, (do I hear a faint cheer?) but I hope
you get the message that people who don't know what they are doing are
declaiming in language that defeats their purpose, mainly because of
their blind certainty that their pearls of wisdom will be gobbled up
by those at whom they are cast.

The same blindness is evident in home language instruction dictates.
The time when language learning is easiest and most permanent is in
the earliest years of education. Vernacular as a medium of instruction
is a great cultural tool and must be preserved. But don't try to teach
subjects that will have to be relearned at a later stage with a
different vocabulary, making the task doubly difficult. In South
Korea, school children have to take English from their first year in
school and it doesn't interfere with their cultural heritage at all.
It just makes them internationally more competitive. Our problem is
the lack of people on the ground who are capable of teaching English,
not that it is a threat to cultural identity.

If you want to say "Email your Powerpoint presentation to my URL and
I'll upload it to the company server for our intranet." it's not going
to be easy to render faithfully in any other language. The ways we
relate to and interact with our world are changing all the time. In
Australia, the time people spend on the internet has overtaken the
amount of time spent watching television. The language environments
and requirements of the two electronic communications systems are very
different. Language has a vital role to play as a catalyst for
cultural belonging and for preserving social history, but as soon as
it becomes a political pawn, it loses much of its value as a unifying
force and becomes divisive. And when badly conceived policies are
imposed from above, they can even be destructive.

In fact, the last decently expressed instructions that were carved in
stone were brought down the mountain by Moses.
* Whom do you want to speak to?

The views of the writer are not necessarily shared by anyone else on
the planet. Perhaps not even in the universe.

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