[lg policy] Languages aren't racist, people are

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jan 29 10:10:28 EST 2018

Languages aren't racist, people are 2018-01-28 06:01

Russel Kaschula; Zakeera Docrat And Monwabisi Ralarala
- <https://www.news24.com/City-Press>
[image: University of Pretoria campus. Picture: Theana Breugem.]

University of Pretoria campus. Picture: Theana Breugem.

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*Linguicism can be linguistically argued to be racism, but the reality is
that pupils will learn best in the language they understand best, write
Russell Kaschula, Zakeera Docrat and Monwabisi Ralarala.*

There is clearly a disjuncture between the intentions of section 6 of the
Constitution, which says that “the state must take practical and positive
measures to elevate the status and advance the use ... ” of the African
languages, and what is happening on the ground.

The recent Constitutional Court judgment concerning the University of the
Free State saw the acceptance of the university’s English-only language
policy without explaining how multilingualism will be implemented. It is as
if multilingualism is an afterthought. The conflation of linguicism with
racism without unpacking the language complexities that faced us during the
recent Hoërskool Overvaal language debacle is another case in point.

Linguicism can be linguistically argued to be racism, but the reality is
that pupils will learn best in the language they understand best – their
mother tongue. According to the 2011 national census, English is the mother
tongue of only 9.6% of South Africans.

The neocolonial efforts to homogenise and standardise the teaching system
as an English one is linguistic imperialism or linguicism: it will only
benefit the English mother tongue speaker, and it is destined to encourage
exclusion and inequality.

With the exception of the Economic Freedom Fighters, no one has mentioned
the role that mother tongue education should play in our classrooms. The
knee-jerk reaction against Afrikaans simply means a win for the
English-only brigade and neocolonialism.

If our society is serious about development, this cannot be done through a
colonial language, at least for those who still suffer from the shackles of
apartheid and who have little or no access to English.

That does not mean we should not learn English as a language, that it
should not be properly taught as a subject and that we should not be
proficient in it, but it surely does not mean that we should be taught
English, especially if our proficiency is debatable.

A one-size-fits-all language policy with English as the medium of
instruction will not work as everyone does not have equal access to this
language. One only becomes proficient in a language when the right
conditions exist, such as proper teaching of the language and daily
exposure to it. Arguably, in educational spaces, real learning can be
achieved by embracing languages, particularly marginalised African
languages, and mediating perceptions of reality by linking language to

This emerging linguicism, or English monolingualism, is based on the
constitutional principle of “reasonable practicability”, which does not
afford everyone the right to receive education in the official language(s)
of choice in public institutions.

In the University of the Free State case, the majority judgment of the
Constitutional Court did not address the language question in relation to
the country’s multilingual landscape. Justice Johan Froneman, in his
dissenting judgment, rightfully pointed out that there was no reference
made to the state’s obligation to advance the country’s other official
languages. The Constitutional Court furthermore failed to hear the views of
mother tongue African language speakers, as well as those students and
lecturers directly affected by the decision to accept an English-only

Froneman reasoned that public opinion on the matter would have clarified
what retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke referred to as
collateral irony in the Ermelo language policy case. Collateral irony being
where African language speaking parents and pupils prefer being taught in
English instead of their mother tongue.

Further clarification in this regard would be why one language with a
colonial history – English – was chosen, but Afrikaans was rejected. In our
opinion, what is needed is a proper and linguistically sound understanding
of multilingualism as a resource – educationally, legally and societally.

Only one in three pupils eventually reach Grade 12, largely because they
cannot cope with the medium of instruction – English.

There is no doubt that the language of power in South Africa is English and
it is used to control every facet of life in this country. One’s education,
from early childhood development to tertiary education, is largely
controlled though the medium of English, with the exception of the first
three grades of school. In this multilingual society, where large portions
of the population have unequal access to English, this is problematic and
one has to question who is actually an English speaker. A rudimentary
knowledge of English disempowers a person in the same way that Afrikaans
was used to disempower pupils in 1976.

The curricula of schools and universities should not be defined by
imperialist and colonialist ideology, but by African values and philosophy,
where the African voice underpinned by African languages is vocal, not a
silent voice that accepts English monolingualism at the expense of

New models should evolve in which language is not used to exclude any
pupil. This requires bilingual and multilingual pedagogic models to be used
in the classroom alongside English. Even monolingual teachers and lecturers
can be taught to use such models in the classroom.

There is an inability to grasp the fact that cognition takes place in a
language that one understands best, normally the mother tongue, and it is
still possible to acquire good English skills while learning it as a

The Cofimvaba project in the Eastern Cape, where high school maths and
science are taught in isiXhosa, and the subsequent improvement in pass
rates, is a clear example of the success of being educated in one’s mother

It is what is taught and how it is taught that is important – the language
of tuition does not determine whether an institution is racist or

*Kaschula is professor of African Language Studies; Docrat is a doctoral
student in African Language Studies; at Rhodes and Ralarala is associate
professor in language practice at CPUT*

 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

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