Saving minority languages

Sibusiso Nkosi

In 2009, a deaf matriculant at Westville Boys’ High School in KwaZulu-Natal, Kyle Springate, withdrew his legal bid to force the department of education to allow him to take sign language as a subject.

This is but one example of how the deaf community has suffered over the past 23 years, trying to exercise its constitutional right.

However, their struggles will soon be over as Parliament’s portfolio committee on constitutional review grapples with making the South African Sign Language (SASL) the 12th official language in the country.

As the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and other concerned organisations are celebrating this positive step taken by the constitutional review committee, the reality is that there is still a long, winding road ahead of us before any tangible change can be felt.

Especially if one takes into consideration that the committee must table its proposal to the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces to amend sections 6(1) and (5)(a) to include SASL as an official language.

This is indeed a positive response, not only to the deaf communities but also to the entire country, particularly to those who wish to study sign language.

Sadly, it is too little too late for people such as Springate who, eight years ago, wanted to take sign language as a subject for his matric studies.

The department of basic education and other government institutions might find it tough to escape the pending changes to the Constitution.

In the end they will have to adapt to the changes or face the consequences. This may also extend to the private sector.

As we await these changes, questions are being asked about the prospects of Khoi, Nama and San languages, as it was recently revealed during the PanSALB national conference on indigenous languages that there is a Khoi language family, but no San language family.

What this means is that the way these indigenous languages are categorised in the Constitution might be incorrect and that would require an amendment.

These are not the only challenges with these indigenous languages.

For instance, research reveals that there are only 13 indigenous languages of Bushmen and Khoi spoken today; many became extinct over the past 100 years.

One of the indigenous languages which is facing extinction is Nluu.

It is spoken by four family members in Upington, Northern Cape, with Katrina Esau being the most active in teaching her heritage language to children and community members.

While we celebrate this progress, let us think of these vanishing languages.

As Mexican poet Octavio Paz put it: “For every language that becomes extinct, an image of man disappears.”

Nkosi is head of marketing and communication at PanSALB, writing in his personal capacity

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