New dictionaries to help preserve SA’s language heritage

2017-10-15 06:00
9 languages each with its own dictionary, reaffirm the idea of a multilingual South Africa.

9 languages each with its own dictionary, reaffirm the idea of a multilingual South Africa.

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South African indigenous languages may be saved from the list of those identified by the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as likely to disappear at the end of this century.

Working with the SA National Lexicography Units, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and the department of basic education have compiled the first set of bilingual dictionaries in nine indigenous languages for children in grades R to 3.

It is hoped the project will encourage parents to help their children learn in their own languages.

Research has shown that most black parents are pushing their children to learn largely in ­English.

Terence Ball, adviser for language policy implementation at the lexicography units, said this was becoming a problem and parents were unhappy about it.

“I was on a plane reading one of our dictionaries when someone, either a politician or businessman, gave me an odd look.

“He explained that he didn’t mean to be rude, but he had just never seen a dictionary in his indigenous language of isiXhosa before.”

Ball said the full-colour dictionaries include illustrations so children can begin to form an extensive vocabulary before they start to read.

There is an index which gives both the English and vernacular meanings and spelling of what is being depicted.

This will help foundation phase pupils who speak a home language get to grips with being taught in English, and English speakers to learn an ­indigenous tongue. The end game is a multilingual society.

Disappearing languages

The idea is to safeguard South Africa’s languages. There are plans to add the San and Nama languages to the collection.

Ball said the dictionaries have been produced in all nine official indigenous languages: SiSwati, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana, Tshivenda, Sesotho, Sepedi, isiNdebele and Xitsonga.

They will be distributed to local schools.

Workshops will be held to train teachers how to use the dictionaries in learning exercises. The basic education department will decide on a roll-out strategy for the dictionaries.

According to Unesco, if nothing is done, half of the more than 6 000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this ­century.

And, with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity will lose not only an irreplaceable cultural heritage, but also valuable ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages, Unesco warned.

There are 10 South African languages on Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, including San.

PanSALB reached a milestone in its attempts to preserve indigenous languages, following the release of its first monolingual SiSwati dictionary in Mbombela, Mpumalanga last month.

Their lack of availability has been an impediment to developing them into languages of science, research and business.

- The dictionaries will be in stores in January and will cost R130. For more details, visit

Read more on:    unesco  |  pansalb  |  language  |  heritage

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