SOS: Save our mother tongues

2017-02-05 05:58
Jabulani Simelane and Dikeledi Nkhona at the launch of Language Month

Jabulani Simelane and Dikeledi Nkhona at the launch of Language Month

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There is no political will to fully implement the requirement of the Constitution to give all official languages equal status. This is the one point the Pan-South African Language Board (PanSALB) – established to promote multilingualism in the country – and language activists agree on.

As South Africa observes Language Month throughout February, the debate that will once again dominate what should ideally be a celebration of languages will be the failure of the implementation of policies meant to promote all languages.

“We need the political will,” said CEO of PanSALB Rakwena Mpho Monareng.

The Constitution is clear that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably” and “the national government and provincial governments, by legislative and other measures, must regulate and monitor the use of official languages”.

The Constitution further states that “recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”.

But this is not happening, even with language policies that government departments and other important institutions have, said Monareng.

“The problem is, do we want to do it? No. Do we fake it? Yes. And the longer we fake it, the more we make these languages obsolete,” he said.

Research and development manager at the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy Jenny Katz said it was clear that government was overwhelmed by the 11 official languages.

“Their hearts are in the right place, the policy is there, but in reality, there’s no implementation. It’s very much a case of being overwhelmed.

“The Constitution says all languages are equal, but in reality this is difficult to maintain. In all practicality, it all becomes an academic exercise. Indigenous languages are going to die out because the global languages take over,” Katz said.

Though she said she was generally in favour of children being taught in their mother tongue, Katz said the part of the Constitution about languages was “unimplementable” and “unrealistic” because of the realities of people’s choices.

The PanSALB CEO said South Africa still stood a good chance of reversing the damage that had been done by failing to treat indigenous languages with the same importance as English. “Yes, we can. The question is, do we want to do it?”

Monareng said a lot of “ideological damage” had been done to the world by selling English as a dominant language when it wasn’t. “English has been inflated to an extent that we all started linking being clever with speaking English.”

Government, he said, has played its part in creating this perception.

“If you look at the act or the law, you find that the English version is the one signed by the president. It’s because this has become normal, so no one sees anything wrong with that,” Monareng said.

PanSALB hopes that, through the Language Month campaign, South Africans will acknowledge the importance of preserving African languages while promoting multilingualism.

“People will tell you that you cannot do business in an African language, but there is no language that has been made for a particular activity. This has gone on for such a long time that it has been inculcated in us to a point that we think the alternative is impossible,” said Monareng.

While Katz argued that there weren’t enough material and books written in African languages because there was no market for them – and that authors find it difficult to publish because of lack of standardisation of the indigenous languages – Monareng differed.

“It’s not that there are no books – we made them disappear. When businesses start, they don’t come with customers, they make customers. We must make these languages relevant,” he said.

Sabata-mpho Mokae, author of Setswana novels and lecturer at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, said the empowerment of languages “relies largely on these languages being written. When you apply for an identity document, for instance, you must find the form in all the languages. Government must ensure that in every school, kids are taught in not only their mother tongue, but more languages.” Mokae’s first Setswana novel, Ga Ke Modisa, has been prescribed at the North West University and Central University of Technology.

Even with these challenges, Monareng is confident that Language Month will bear positive fruit.

“The campaign is part of the revival of PanSALB. The intention is to reclaim our languages and put the language matter where it matters most, with the people,” he said.

“We want to hold institutions accountable when it comes to multilingualism ... We want to ensure that the knowledge-making process gives space to the country’s indigenous languages. Knowledge in one language is not doing justice to the wisdom brought by other languages.”

PanSALB will now “up the game” to ensure that African languages have status in institutions that matter, the CEO said.

“We don’t want to be controversial. We want to be principled.”

Members of the public are encouraged to attend public hearings that will look at how far government departments have gone in using indigenous languages.

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