Khaya Dlanga

English has colonised our languages

2011-02-15 12:43

Our official languages are only official on paper. The Constitution. It is time we became honest about this. One is almost inclined to say that that part of the Constitution was written to make us feel good about ourselves and congratulate one another on how tolerant we are as a nation because we were able to accommodate all 11 official languages. It is just make up. It was done to make us look good. English is South Africa’s official language whether we like to admit it or not.  This is good and bad.

When white schools were opened to black kids in the early 90s, black parents sent their kids to white schools, not just for a superior education, but more importantly, so that they could learn to speak great English; so that they could get great jobs, not just in South Africa but anywhere else in the world. It went so far that some parents in the various townships barred their children from speaking their mother tongues but English at home.

It became the hip thing to do. Black parents would ask their young children to bring Coke with Choice Assorted to visitors so that they could speak English. In reality what they were doing was just showing off how well their little black child can speak the white man's language.

Ironically, it was a British weekly magazine that wrote an article detailing the slow decline of South African languages just a few weeks ago. Yes, even Afrikaans, in case you were wondering.

The great, conservative and informative British publication, The Economist, published an article with the headline “South African languages, Tongues under threat” with the sub heading, “English is dangerously dominant.” Yes. The Economist said that English is dangerously dominant in South Africa. So dangerous in fact that it is eating away at Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Ndebele, Afrikaans and numerous other South African languages.

I am not unaware of the irony of writing in English. This is obviously a clear demonstration of the powers that we have given the language in this country. I must confess, I am far more proficient in English than I am in my own language, whether it be reading or writing. I have not read a single Xhosa novel in my life, yet I have read so many English novels I have lost count.

The colonisers may have left, but they certainly colonised our tongues. At least back when the colonisers had guns, we resisted them. We fought. People died. This time we participate in the colonisation of the tongue. We encourage it.

I was fortunate enough to be in a group of 20 people invited to share our views on the African continent with Thabo Mbeki. One of the people there whispered to me and said, “The colonisers haven’t left, they just changed complexion.” That cut me deep. It’s true.

There is painful truth behind those words. We laugh at those who can’t pronounce English words properly.

What are we to do to prevent a spectacular demise of our languages? If we are not careful, our languages are going to end up like Latin, only studied by people who enjoy languages. They will become extinct. This over glorification and undervaluing of our languages needs to end. It demeans us as a people and robs the world of rich culture. With our languages gone, the understanding of our cultures will also go.

I am not saying English must end. We must speak it. It is the economic language of the world. To call for it to be abolished would be foolish. It ought to be compulsory for every single child to learn English first language and another South African language.

Even if black parents’ kids go to English language instruction schools, they must only speak a South African language to them at home.

We should be less inclined to applaud someone who only speaks English fluently but doesn’t speak an African language with equal eloquence. There should be no pride in only being able to speak English well while you can’t speak your mother tongue well. I have seen some people speak with pride almost when they say they are not very proficient in their mother tongues. Shameful.

We need to be proud of our languages. It is the only way we will be able to preserve them. Not only should we preserve them, they ought to thrive. Peoples from other nations should want to speak them too. How about we start trying to export them too?

Let the French, the Germans, the Chinese want to learn to speak Xhosa or Zulu. How we do that I don’t know. Someone else must come up with the how. Who says it can’t be done?

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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