[lg policy] Implementing language policies in Southern Africa: A daunting task

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 17 11:53:20 EDT 2019

Implementing language policies in Southern Africa: A daunting task (Part 1)
 STAFF REPORTER <https://neweralive.na/author/3>    THOUGHT LEADERS
<https://neweralive.na/category/thought-leaders>    KHOMAS
 2019-05-17 10:05:27 7 hours ago



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The local press was recently awash with the news that the Ministry of
Education, Arts and Culture in Namibia wants to introduce a new language
policy in schools. If legislators approve this language policy, it will
compel primary schools to use the mother language as a medium of
instruction from Grade 1 to Grade 3.  Although this is a commendable move,
but is not without challenges.
At the attainment of independence, most African governments adopted the
coloniser’s foreign languages as the official languages to be used in
business, the judiciary, education, local government and parliament. The
examples of foreign languages that have dominated local languages in Africa
are English, French and Portuguese. I argue that indigenous languages in
Southern Africa, which is the focus of this article, have low variety
status vis-à-vis foreign languages mainly due to a variety of reasons, the
major being the challenges faced in the implementation of the language
policies in these countries.
While in my survey I found out there are language policies in the countries
studied, it can be concluded that having a language policy in place is not
congruent to the implementation and the desired effects thereof. In the
second and last segment of this article, I recommend the Tanzanian language
policy model that formalised Swahili as a national language for all
purposes. To all intents and purposes, the Swahili model has been a
resounding success.
For the past decades, conferences have been held on issues surrounding the
statuses of African languages, not only in Southern Africa, but in Africa
as a whole. One can cite, as examples, the UNESCO Intergovernmental
Conference on Language Policies in Africa which was held in Harare,
Zimbabwe, in 1997; the African Conference on the Integration of African
Languages and Cultures into Education which was held in 2010 in Ougadougou,
Berkina Faso; the Cape Town Language and Development conference held in
South Africa in 2015; and the African Languages Association of Southern
Africa (ALASA) conference held at the Namibia University of Science and
Technology at the end of June in 2016.
Imagining these and other deliberations and efforts on the
African-languages question as battles, the major question I attempt to
answer is: are linguists and language practitioners with a keen interest in
the preservation of African autochthonous languages losing the war?  Based
on critical analyses of works on the language policies of the Southern
African Development Community (SADC) countries, I discuss a number of
challenges that affect the implementation of language policies in these
 The major challenges the  diglossic situations which perpetuate the
supremacy of the language of the colonisers at the expense of indigenous
African languages; the neo-colonial elites who promote languages like
English, French and Portuguese as languages that buttress their power, in
most cases paying lip-service to the promotion of indigenous languages; the
absence of strict monitoring of the implementation of language policies in
domains like primary, secondary and tertiary education, and training; the
lack of support for the development of African languages from the private
sector; the lack of interest in promoting the use of languages of minority
groups which are faced with extinction; and the conundrum multilingual
communities face in determining which indigenous languages have to be to
officialised as national languages and/or ‘standard’ languages. Although
the task seems to be insurmountable, linguists, language practitioners and
other concerned entities, have to step up the fight for our African
languages which are the vehicles of our cultural identities, heritages and
indigenous knowledge systems. In this fight, we need to respect
multilingualism and linguistic diversity, guided by the fact that there is
no language that is more linguistically superior to the other.
As a point of departure, I note that the indigenous languages studied
actually play second fiddle to foreign languages. The Oxford Dictionary of
English Idioms defines the idiom ‘play second fiddle to’ as “take a
subordinate role to someone or something.” Applied to the language question
and language policies discussed here, one can conclude that indigenous
African languages are given secondary roles in the SADC countries whose
language policies were investigated. From the onset, let me categorically
say that SADC linguists, language practitioners and researchers, and
like-minded progressive forces should condemn situations in which
indigenous African languages play secondary roles in our countries and that
the situation should be redressed without further delay. In this spirit, I
published two articles titled Development of indigenous languages needs
strong support and Time for SADC to save indigenous African languages in
the Windhoek Observer (2015, 2016) hoping to stimulate debate on this
sensitive topic. To my utter dismay, no response came out of this effort,
not even in the form of a letter to the editor. The absence of response
suggested to me that either there is lack of interest in linguistic
matters, or people did not understand language policy and planning in this
country. Either way, fair enough, no blame.
Equally disturbing, the dearth of interest in local languages seems to be
widespread. In the research for this article I ‘travelled’ and ‘sojourned’
in SADC countries, not physically (except in Namibia), but spiritually and
intellectually.  The spirited academic journey left my heart and mind in
tatters as the cruellest facts about the situations of indigenous languages
that had been taken for granted or glossed over hitherto were discovered.
The most painful thing that struck me was that the political elite in each
of the countries studied have deliberately perpetuated the supremacy of
foreign languages over indigenous languages. There is clear evidence which
shows that language and power are closely related and in this case the
foreign language that was used to subjugate the local people and their
languages is the most preferred language by the new governments.
The socio-political environment created by the political elite has had a
negative perception of the status of local languages against foreign
language.  In other words, the power that is exercised by the new rulers or
elite is entrenched in the foreign language of the colonial master. To show
how powerful a language is, Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich remarked: “A
language is a dialect with an army and a foreign policy’’. This statement
is sometimes quoted as “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
As I have already been stated above, the common denominator of most
Sub-Saharan countries is the obvious choice of the former coloniser’s
language and that power is entrenched in the coloniser’s language instead
of indigenous languages.  For example, according to Augusto of Angola,
there is overwhelming evidence backed by statistics in Angola that shows
that that although the official language the government chose at
independence in 1975 was Portuguese, most Angolans living in non-urban
areas did not speak or understand the language. The choice of Portuguese as
the only official language and as the language of instruction in Angola was
condemned by Fernandes and Ntondo who strongly argued that it was
detrimental to the development of indigenous Bantu languages and Khoisan
languages in the country.  Similarly, the Mozambican language policy puts
Portuguese as the official language showing a clear inheritance of the
former coloniser’s language. Portuguese has the prestige of having been
selected for all official functions, including education, while the
indigenous languages have the status of local “minority” languages, thus
playing little or no formal role at all in both countries.
English dominates as an official language in Zimbabwe, South Africa,
Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia. Although English
is the former coloniser’s language in other countries, it was not a former
coloniser’s language in Namibia which used Afrikaans as an official
language before independence.  The choice of English as the official
language offered a neutral lingua franca in a multilingual society in
Namibia in which Afrikaans was viewed with suspicion by the new leadership
mainly because it was the official language during the apartheid colonial
In the Democratic Republic of Congo French dominates local languages like
Kikongo, Lingala, Luba-Kasai and Congo Swahili. The DRC’s indigenous
languages can be classified into three distinct types: the Bantoid, the
Adamawa-Ubangian and the Central Sudanic groups.
 In Mauritius and Seychelles French and English are the official languages
despite the fact the majority speak Creole.
In sum, we see the perpetuation of a diglossic situation which treats
foreign languages as High Varieties and indigenous languages as Low
Varieties in education, the judiciary and government, and related spheres
of the socio-economic and political contexts.
But what is diglossia? According to Wardhaugh, “Diglossia reinforces social
distinctions. It is used to assert social position and to keep people in
their place, particularly those at the lower end of the social hierarchy.
Any move to extend the Low Variety . . . is likely to be perceived to be a
direct threat to those who want to maintain traditional relationships and
the existing power structure.”
So the diglossic situations created perpetuate the supremacy of the
language of the coloniser or the foreign language. The inherited language
enjoys the status of unifying and prestige in commonly multilingual
societies typical of majority of African countries at the expense of
indigenous languages. It is evident that diglossic situations were created
during the colonial periods; diglossic situations were extended at
independence and still exist today; diglossic situations will continue into
the future unless something drastic is put in place by our governments to
stop this colossal monster that will devour our languages and cultures.
Coupled with the above, some language policies are so vague and
inconsistent that upon implementation they themselves create challenges
that negatively affect the implementation process. For instance, Mauritius
lacks clarity as no language is legally recognised as official or national
but there is bias towards French and English at the expense of Kreol which
is widely spoken. This vagueness leads to confusion and wide variation in
languages of instruction across the country. In most Mauritian classrooms,
a combination of Kreol, French, and English is used, though for different
purposes. Zambia is ambiguous and Malawi is mixed up as children with
different national languages background learn some subjects in multilingual
contexts as the books are written in Chichewa and the teachers’ teaching
guides are written in English. The policy is very silent about the language
of assessment at these particular grades. Lesotho has its language policy
labelled as ambiguous as the question of whose mother tongue the policy is
referring to remains unanswered.
Some language policies in multilingual societies are blamed for promoting
inequality as the chosen language is elevated to an official language
thereby relegating other national and minority languages to lower rungs of
the social ranking as noted in Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Societal
norms have assigned roles to local languages as of low status while English
or other colonisers’ languages are of the high status. In relation to this,
Wright states that lax and non-interventionist policies promote the
languages of power and prestige which will eventually take over in all
situations of contact. (To be continued next week.  A version of this
article was published by Inkanyiso Journal)

*Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and
Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord.
Email address: kjairos at gmail.com


 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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