Why we must take pride in our language

2019-03-14 11:44

Do lecturers put students first and above all else?

Do lecturers put students first and above all else?

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Language has been much debated lately. It is always bubbling under. Among other things, it has made headlines through the policy debates of South African universities, the focus of efforts to connect local languages to the digital age – and so much more.

This has raised questions: “Do we need a multilingual education system in universities? Which languages are superior? Do all language groups receive an equal and excellent education?”

Here we address something which, we believe, goes to the heart of it – namely, to cultural and emotional issues.

South African education specialist Daryl Braam notes that there is “widespread prejudice against African languages”. Not only that, but black South Africans have been made to feel that their own languages are ugly or inferior, because (for example) IsiZulu, IsiXhosa or SeTswana are viewed as not in the same league as the languages used in institutions such as Stellenbosch, where Afrikaans and English have been the languages of instruction. In some form this has caused linguistic insecurity – even, as it is called, “linguistic self-hatred”.

Apart from that, it seems that language is simply the thing which affords us attention – and not all languages achieve that as effectively.

But it goes to something deeper. The way we feel about our language has everything to do with the way we feel about our culture – which is above all, the place we were born, and the people we grew up with. Julius Malema is quoted in The Citizen as saying, "The problem with Africans is self-hatred and self-rejection." This will be putting it too strongly – yet there is some truth in it. On the other hand, when we are asked about the advantages and privileges of our culture, few of us know how to answer. We seem to know the disadvantages better.

But isn't this the old colonial narrative? A people who believe they have no advantages. English is the standard of intelligence, while our riches are judged by Western norms. Our proud history, sophisticated culture, and generous ways, lie largely forgotten.

It has been hard, it is true. It all got torn apart through colonialism and apartheid. We have huge disadvantages of material wealth in particular. But the traces – more than traces – of our ancient cultures are still with us, and everywhere we now see signs of gentle pride rising – among other things in government, music, medicine, architecture, fashion – and language.

The playing field is still not equal, and great challenges remain. One of the greatest of these lies, again, in linguistic insecurity. There would be nothing better at this point, than to remind ourselves why we may take pride in our local languages:

• There is in fact nothing in our local languages which makes them inferior. Our eleven official languages are rich, subtle, sophisticated creations which have delighted experts – each of them unique. Linguistics PhD candidate Joyce Sibadela describes Tshivenda, for instance, as a masterpiece for enhancing social harmony, while the grammarian Koos Oosthuysen describes isiXhosa as an integrated work of genius.

• Our languages represent a rich expression of our culture. The philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote, “There is a certain memory in a culture that is carried on in its language.” If one believes Schaeffer, our languages have been shaped by past history, and carry this history within them – tragedy and triumph, kings and warriors, children playing and mothers cooking, oppression and political struggle, and hard-won freedoms – all carried on in our languages.

• While English serves as a useful tool on the world stage – a lingua franca – there are other advantages for those who know their mother-tongue. Local languages do not set us back – in fact they do the opposite. There is an ironic example in apartheid-state policy. According to Daryl Braam, the government promoted African languages so that speakers would be excluded from the economic and political domains of life. But there was a surprise. Research shows that, in this time, the matric pass rate increased from 44% to 84%. Local languages worked a kind of magic for academic advancement.

• Languages give us different ways of seeing the world. The revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote, “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” Multiple languages multiply perspectives. They make better thinkers, and foster greater creativity and entrepreneurship. The BBC reports that multiple languages give us “a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility – and multitasking skills are, of course, valuable in everyday life.”

While linguistic insecurity is a big problem in South Africa today, things are slowly changing. We may rightly be proud of our own local language. At the same time, the nation needs to embrace all of our languages together – in fact, to treasure them – and not at the expense of any other. We want to love the languages of others, too, and to have a heart for them where they struggle with language – making every effort to advance their hopes and aspirations where second- or third-language skills are not yet strong.

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About the authors:  Sifiso Mkhonto is a logistician and former student leader. Thomas Scarborough is a minister and philosophy editor. Their essays represent combined views, to stimulate discussion. The authors may not in every case share the views expressed.

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