More black people choose English

2013-04-28 14:00

IsiZulu might be the most spoken language among South African black people, but English is fast becoming their language of choice.

The latest analysis conducted by the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), based on Census 2011 results, showed that black households account for about a quarter – almost 1.2 million – of the 4.9 million people who speak English as their first language.

This is more than 12 times the 183 631 of a decade ago.

Released earlier this week, the SAIRR’s analysis sparked mixed reactions, with some saying the figures had to be wrong, while others saying they weren’t surprised.

But statistician-general Pali Lehohla defended his results, saying they reflect exactly what is happening in contemporary South Africa.

“What the census found is what is happening in our homes, communities, schools and businesses,” he says.

“English has become the preferred language of teaching and learning at schools, as well as for businesses. And, because of its influence in society, it should be expected that there would be a great shift towards it.”

According to the 2010 annual school survey, 64% of pupils in public schools in 2010 chose to be taught in English, yet only 7% of them said English was their first language.

SAIRR researcher Thuthukani Ndebele says the census findings were also no surprise to him.

“One must understand that English is the preferred language of business and learning in this country, as well as in many countries across the world.

“It would be expected that people may believe that if they want to get ahead in life they need to start using it as their first language,” he explains.

But, he says this language shift “must not happen at the expense of our mother tongues”.

Dr Wesley Mabuza – the chairperson of the commission for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities – agrees.

“It is important to nurture and grow our mother tongues, and the only way to do that is by teaching our kids to understand, speak and be able to write them,” he says, adding that if this did not happen, “we will lose our identity in the future”.

Lehohla says it would be difficult to say who those black people are who decided to switch to English in the past 10 years, but most are middle class.

Asked if the massive increase was fuelled by the number of foreign nationals living here, Lehohla says it was, but “the huge number of people that indicated English as the home language during the census were South Africans”.

He further says: “People may not be comfortable with this shift, but evidence suggests that the number of black people that use English as their home language will increase in future.”

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