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Great Shame of Language

05 January 2014, 21:13

It’s a tired topic but one that must be revisited because we haven’t resolved it: Languages.

Languages are very important, they can ostracize and reconcile. I’d wager that language is more important than skin colour. Nobody in these larney schools actually cares about your ethnicity, so long as your twanging is on par you’re good to go. Likewise, hip-hop culture has spread globally and across races, so long as you speak in their ‘urban’ style and use the words they do on topics the hip-hop community cares about. Heck, the king of hip-hop (arguably) is a white guy – Eminem. That doesn’t matter, because when you close your eyes he isn’t white or black, what he says and the ways he says it are hip-hop.

There is a growing fear and feeling though that most of our indigenous languages are being excluded from the millennium. Except for Afrikaans, our other South African languages barely make a blip on the radar besides Xhosa being the infamous ‘clicking language’. And while Afrikaans speakers stand on the other side of the scientific and technological barrier boasting about how Afrikaans is almost always the first language in an international drop-down list, the rest of us feel cheated. And so the calls come for scientific education in our other languages at school, and when reasonable people object they are called racists. It’s quite sad.

However, I expect reasonable people to also sympathize with the agony of your language – a major factor of one’s identity – being excluded from anything other than cheap social interactions and niceties and tourism attractions.  That’s where the debate comes in. It’s a crying shame to these communities that they are excluded from this whole world, for whatever reasons. However, as I pride myself in being pragmatic even in sympathy, I have a few realistic suggestions on how native speakers of these marginalized languages can rectify the situation (because who else do you expect to come and upgrade your languages?):

1.       Write more. There are a few popular newspapers and magazines in these languages but where are the scientific magazines (even just popular science, not journals) or the technological columns? Even Afrikaans is failing here (heck, there are practically no popular science magazines in South Africa)

2.       Read more. Children should be reading more of their indigenous languages. In addition to writing, investing in the younger generation is how you will develop vocabulary, but it has to be at a natural pace. You can’t suddenly invent a Zulu dictionary of science and expect kids to understand it. It has to be natural.

3.       Standardize – as painful as it sounds, we must sometimes abandon our dialects. There needs to be a (South African produced) standard dictionary and standard translation dictionary for our indigenous languages (most school kids are familiar with the Pharos English – Afrikaans).

4.       Get on the internet in a formal, standard way. News24 has a whole Zulu section on which I barely ever see comments, despite Zulu being the most common native tongue in the country. Google have just added more African languages to their translator and anybody can help by simply using the translator and clicking the button which asks if you can help in the translation. (The African languages were originally just Afrikaans and Swahili, but now include Zulu, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo)

I’ll close by laying the responsibility and some of the blame where it belongs – with native speakers. Take note of the following shame, and I hope it spurs you to action: Nelson Mandela is the best known South African to have ever lived, and undoubtedly the most famous Xhosa person ever and the Xhosa page on Wikipedia is barely two paragraphs long, while the French, English, Dutch, Arabic and others simply go on and on.

So let’s remember that it’s really up to us to do this job, because who else should write the Xhosa page for this great man of the Thembu clan, this great South African? Hendrick Verwoed?

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