Your language doesn’t matter

2016-03-14 22:00

A response to Rennie Naidoo’s article titled South Africa’s Language Games: Moving us forward or Backward?

I am writing this letter to you sir not because I am a member of the ANC or EFF. I am just shocked by your level of thinking and your condescending tone toward indigenous languages.

As per your request let me help you with a few words, please see below in isiZulu:

Quadratic equations – Izilinganiso ezikhwadrathikhi

Trigonometry – Trigonometri

Geometry – Jiyometri

Quantum Mechenics – ikhwantamu mekhenikhi

Arbitrage - Abhitraji

Technical Language as you put it

While I might agree with you when you say that the subjects taught at University level have their own technical terms. It would be a misconception to believe that these cannot be used in conjunction with any other language except English, Afrikaans (or European languages in general).  Many of these technical terms did not originate from English even though they are viewed as English today.

Take for an example the word trigonometry, it comes from the Greek words trigonon and metron, electricity from elektron. While many of these technical terms you refer to have been used to name objects, processes, models and so on, the broad explanation of the processes or the theory involving such terms can the done in any language.  Example:

  • The source of voltage within a battery is known as emf and measured in volts. Batteries generally have internal resistance therefore we can view a battery as the emf connected to a resistor r.

  • Isizinda sevoltheji ebhetrini saziwa ngokithu i-emf kanti ikalwa ngama volthi. Imvamisa amabhetri aba nerezistensi ngaphakathi ngakhoke singathatha ngokuthi ibhetri i-emf exhunywe ne rezista r.

My point here is that even English was not an academic language at some point in history, but it was developed into what it is today. This included borrowing words from other languages and naming things, ideas, concepts and so on.   If this is true for one language, why can’t it be true for any other language?  Perhaps it can’t be true for an African language?

Symbol of racial identity

While it is not ideal but unfortunately it has always been and I think to deny it would be delusional. While I do not like to delve into politics too much, I think we should ask how it came about that we are dominated by English.  Why are we sold the idea of the Francophone and Anglophone countries in Africa as it Africans do not have languages of their own? How did June 16 come about? My point here is that you cannot talk about language as an isolated concept that may not involve any political, racial or cultural aspects.  At the core of one’s identity is his culture and language.

Who and where are these people that would the qualified to teach these using these indigenous concepts? So you ask.

The fact of the matter is that they would be plenty by now if the government, centres of learning and the intelligentsia of the country took African languages seriously and channelled resources to develop them in the first place.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have the hullabaloo about language policy today.  Our constitution recognises 11 languages, it’s a pity that even to this day only two are seen as more superior than the rest.

Africans should not be apologetic about fighting for recognition and development of their languages in their own country and they do not need permission from anyone including yourself sir. If the academic institutions in our country do not see it fit to do something about African languages in Africa, perhaps it is time for a black man to take action. “Black man, you are on your own” Steve Biko.

Language is more importantly a tool to think and build stuff. And we have to face up to it – some tools are simple better than others.

As you put it sir, I too should like to think and build stuff in my own language. I should not be hindered by a language barrier.  Many of the young black students at varsities do not perform well compared to their peers from other races not because they are of inferior intelligence, but because of the language barrier.

An African child faces a double dilemma in the South African education context, not only is he facing a problem of understanding the concept itself, he must first deal with the language issue. As if that is not enough, he has to deal with those on the other side who question his level of intellect as if they too are facing the same problems.

This laptop I am using to type this letter to you is better than the 1980 typewriter simple because it has been made that way with a lot of research and development involved. Hence any tool can be made better than the other.

If we want to publish our research in top journals, attract international academics, collaborate with the best minds both local and global, create patents from research to build mega industries, and communicate effectively in the global world of work, we will need to use the world’s most evolved and flexible language: English.

While your statement above sounds reasonable, does it prevent the Russians, Germans, Chinese, Arabs, French, Asians and many others, to do what you claim just because they use mainly their own languages? Or is this only applicable to the African context?

Perhaps the Africans are to blame for allowing this to continue for all these years. Perhaps the current generation is not prepared to turn a blind eye. In South Africa the continued dominance of English will not go unchallenged in the years to come. 

Siya Weza


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