The F-word – Raise the bar for African languages

2012-02-04 09:44

Ah, but the white child is smart. He is only knee-high and not at school, but can already speak fluent English.

This is a line familiar to many, mainly black, people in communities where English is not spoken as a first (or even second) language.

Just as being baptised into Christianity in the 1800s was decisive proof of the native’s desire to “be civilised”, today the ease with which the early Christian converts’ great, great-grandchildren speak “George’s tongue” marks the desire to evolve.

It is not surprising then that they are some of the fiercest opponents of African children using their native languages as a medium of instruction in school.

It would seem that it is Africans themselves who are happy with their languages enjoying no more than cameo appearances in conversations about policy and concepts.

They accept a sprinkling of exotic words like “ubuntu”, “lobola”, “Kwaanza” or “lekgotla” and the telling of folk tales. For real game-changers, we defer to English, Greek and Latin.

Some African parents cannot countenance the possibility of anybody who does not speak English under-standing how a car engine works or how cellphones operate without wires attached to their handset.

Yet everywhere else in the world, and at universities such as Stellenbosch and Pretoria, one’s grasp of English is immaterial to one’s success.

It should be self-evident that in a country where some – Afrikaans speakers – have the option of whether to study concepts and seek knowledge in their native language, it is unfair to deny the rest, the majority, the same privilege.

A colleague told me she chose to study in English and not her native Afrikaans because most textbooks were in English and quotes in her home language would have to be translated.

Her reason for not choosing Afrikaans was practical. It is the same reason often given for why it is not feasible to teach in African languages. We are told there are no, or not enough, textbooks.

What this argument pretends is that textbooks write themselves.

African languages will never develop beyond how we use them until there is the political will to make them matter. It is the native speakers and their scholars – incidentally the majority of voters – who must ensure that these languages matter.

Secondly, this argument fails to appreciate that it cannot be right that some people have the option of choosing while others are railroaded into a language that they otherwise may not have chosen.

There is also the psychological disadvantage of entering into a debate using someone else’s, including your opponent’s, language.

Millions of South Africans are excluded every day from topics that affect their lives because these are almost always in (scholarly) English.

The dominance of English unfairly categorises someone as a genius or an idiot if they cannot speak it as fluently as others.

People who learn from non-first language speakers and therefore inevitably pronounce words “funnily” are categorised as idiots.

Natives are then praised for being “well spoken” if they pass muster with those who have not heard them speak any other language.

President Jacob Zuma is a prime example of this. Nobody ever praises (or disses) him for the lyricism of his Zulu, but he is always criticised for not speaking perfect English like Barack Obama.

Getting African languages into the mainstream is not just a matter of Africanist pride. It is a democratic imperative, in effect including the majority in debates on matters that affect them.

Leaving things as they are, perpetuates the inferiority complex that makes some people assume that the English are naturally smart because they can speak their own language long before they go to school.

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