[lg policy] The language question in SA

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Feb 22 10:35:25 EST 2018

 The language question in SA
Zohra Dawood |
21 February 2018
Zohra Dawood says mother tongue learning at an early age is key


 Feb 21, 2018

The title of this article draws on a quote from American feminist writer,
Rita Mae Brown, who said, “…*language is the roadmap of culture. It tells
you where its people came from and where they are going*”.

Language rights and questions, like so many issues in South Africa at the
dawn of democracy, were, in the words of former Constitutional Court Judge,
Albie Sachs, “*never about function and convenience. The approach embodied
in the Constitution is accordingly not based on numbers as such but on
historical, sociological and political fact*”. Hence the agreement amongst
all parties at the constitutional negotiations to make the following the
official languages of the country: Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati,
Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

At first glance, the number of official languages, standing at 11,
confounds the imagination. However, the principle of language equality in
South Africa is an imperative in a country that had historically enforced
bilingualism, with English and Afrikaans as the official languages and
African languages being relegated to homeland territories. Constitutional
drafters were mindful of the need for both delicacy and respect. Hence the
proposal not to downgrade the two official languages but to instead upgrade
nine African languages, was drafted into the final Constitution.

Again, Judge Albie Sachs sums up the place of language when he writes that,
“*the language question is a question of communication, but it is also a
matter of identity on the one hand, and of empowerment and disempowerment
on the other*”. This sums up South Africa on the cusp of the transition to
democracy and why language as cultural identity, required sensitive

While sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution are clear in respect of
language and cultural rights, a major and continuing fault line in the
discourse about language rights is in that of language policy in education.
The issue continues to evoke strident and often emotional responses and is
often both politicised and racialised, in respect of the role of the
Afrikaans language in schools and universities as primary medium of
instruction. Afrikaans, after isiZulu and isiXhosa, is the third most
spoken language in the country by “non-white” people and this may well
qualify it as an indigenous language.

Professor Andrew Foley, Director of the Division of Languages in the
Department of English at Wits University writes that, “*the question of
mother-tongue education in South Africa remains a vexed one. On the one
hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to
receive education in their mother tongue, if they so wish. On the other
hand, there are some very real difficulties involved in the implementation
of this ideal*”, including language development, curriculum development,
teacher education and implementation of policy on the ground.

Despite the difficulties of effective implementation, Professor Foley, like
many other educationalists, linguists and researchers, is an advocate for
mother language education. Overwhelming evidence exists that teaching
younger children in mother tongue is an aid to cognitive and learning
ability, and is key to the development and transfer of communication
skills, knowledge and information within families and communities. The
limitations of not fully understanding the texture, nuance and content in
the language of instruction disable comprehension and positive education
outcomes, as is increasingly evident in South Africa.

In a seminal paper on Schooling in and for the New South Africa, the late
Professor Neville Alexander, educationist and language policy advisor to
government, summed up his views.  He scathingly wrote, “…l*et me make the
point bluntly: the failure to understand and to address the language issue
in the educational system is tantamount to an act of national suicide by
omission. It is my view that people are dilly-dallying on one of the most
important issues, if not the most important, issue in education. Indeed, if
I may transpose a mispronunciation by a certain teacher at a workshop:
instead of being a stepping stone to effective learning, language policy
more often than not is perceived as a ‘stopping stone’ that prevents such
learning*”. He adds that, “*For something like 70-80% of the population of
South Africa, it is simply not possible currently to acquire the kind of
proficiency in English that would empower them sufficiently to be able to
compete on an equitable basis in the market for highly skilled and
remunerated jobs. And democracy, we should remind ourselves, means power to
the people. Language is one of the most important means of empowerment of
both individuals and societies, and for that reason the language question
is at the heart of a sound democratic system of education*”.

The UN’s declaration of 21 February as International Mother Language Day is
an opportune time to examine the pedagogical, policy and practice of the
promotion of the language of education in South Africa. From the words from
the UN website, the significance of mother language promotion is that
with their complex implications for identity, communication, social
integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for
people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are
increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade,
so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity… To foster
sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their
mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the
first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing
and numeracy are acquired*.” In the light of the above, it is opportune
that the 2018 theme for International Mother Language is ‘Linguistic
Diversity and Multilingualism Count for Sustainable Development’.

It is of fundamental importance that the issue of mother language
education, or the lack thereof, is a contributory factor in the less than
optimal education outcomes achieved in the main by students who are
non-mother tongue English speakers. This is of course one factor in
addition to the range of others outlined in Professor Alexander’s paper
cited above, including poverty, rural/urban divide, race and class, amongst
others. The infrastructure to build the system - including teacher
training, the development of academic vocabulary and curriculum development
- has been largely put on the backburner, despite government’s stated
commitment to implementation.

However, it is not too soon to dust off the policy framework and give these
an impetus if the future of our children remains a key consideration. The
Funza Lushaka Bursary Programme is one such step in the right direction.
Its intention to support bursaries for would-be teachers of indigenous
African languages who come from rural areas, will prove effective in
bolstering the quality and number of people who can teach in at least one
or more of SA’s official languages.

Expectations are high that new President Cyril Ramaphosa will not only
rejuvenate the criminal justice system, treasury and SOEs, amongst others,
but crucially, as he outlined in his maiden SONA, but that he will give
real effect to a vital sentiment in his speech that, “*there  are 57
million of us, each with different histories, languages, cultures,
experiences, views and interests. Yet we are bound by a common destiny*”.
His emphasis on building a society defined by decency and integrity is at
its core an acceptance of history, with a view to building a collective

The promotion of mother language education in South Africa is vexed and
vexing. It is imperative that it does not become a site of struggle, and
that none of the 11 official languages are discriminated against. This
would run counter to the values and provisions of the Constitution.

*Ms Zohra Dawood, Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity.*
Sign up to our free daily headline newsletter
Related Articles


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20180222/18e6c55e/attachment-0001.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list