Is Afrikaans dying and useless, like Charlize Theron says? Experts weigh in

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Hollywood star Charlize Theron. (Photo: Getty. Design: Herman Eloff)
Hollywood star Charlize Theron. (Photo: Getty. Design: Herman Eloff)

IN-DEPTH: Charlize Theron made a controversial comment during an interview this week which stirred up a hot debate in her home country over her mother tongue, Afrikaans. Herman Eloff speaks to experts to get valuable insights on the subject, and the impact of Charlize's comments.  

Afrikaans, a language intertwined with South Africa’s apartheid past, this week made headlines when one of its most famous speakers called it "not helpful" and "dying". 

While speaking on the American podcast, SmartLess, Charlize Theron said: "There’s about 44 people still speaking it… it’s definitely a dying language, it’s not a very helpful language."

Inevitably outrage ensued.

On social media, the opinions varied from disappointment to jubilation. Some felt the comment insulted their cultural heritage, while others praised the Hollywood star, since Afrikaans had played a role in the oppression of black citizens during the apartheid era.

Theron has in the past openly embraced her Afrikaans roots. She often slips in a few Afrikaans sentences in international interviews, and previously revealed she uses Afrikaans to communicate with her mother Gerda when she wants to keep their conversations private in an American setting.

News24 spoke to language experts about the actual reach and impact of Afrikaans in South Africa and abroad.

"One's first reaction to Charlize Theron's comments is to burst out laughing, as anyone who has ever stepped foot in South Africa would surely know that Afrikaans has more than 44 speakers," Dr Gerda Odendaal, co-editor of Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal and research associate at Stellenbosch University's Department of Afrikaans and Nederlands, told News24.

"Given the prevalence of fake news in our society, it is concerning that someone with such a prominent international profile as hers, would make such absurd remarks regarding Afrikaans. There are enough statistics to prove her comment about Afrikaans having only 44 speakers and being a dying language wrong," Odendaal said.

According to Dr Conrad Steenkamp, head of the Afrikaans Language Council, a recent demographic study revealed that the total Afrikaans population in South Africa right now is roughly 6.8 million.

"If you take into consideration that there are quite a large number of second-language speakers, who speak Afrikaans as a second or even a third language, and you add all of that together, you end up with something like 20 million people in the country who can either speak or understand Afrikaans. Which is significant."

He added: "That’s out of a population of roughly 60 million. That’s a full third of the country. Charlize would not be able to walk around and speak Afrikaans without being understood. The other issue is where she spoke about it being a dying language. In her words, it’s shrinking. According to the projections that we’ve made, by 2041 you’re going to have 7.1 million Afrikaans speakers. So, there is clear growth. It’s not much growth, but it is growing. It’s definitely not shrinking."

Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron. (Photo: Getty Images)

READ | Charlize Theron's controversial opinion about Afrikaans - 'It's not a very helpful language'

Bilingual speakers learn new languages quicker

Steenkamp also pointed out that Afrikaans was still useful as a lingua franca in large parts of South Africa.

"Above and beyond that it gives you immense access to European languages. With Afrikaans, you can get along in the Netherlands. With a bit of effort, you will get along in Germany, Austria. It provides you a platform for international access. So, it’s actually a very useful language to learn.

"In fact, there’s another factor here. If you are Afrikaans, chances are you are bilingual. Which means you already know how to learn another language. Which means if you go abroad to work or whatever, you’re going to learn other languages more easily than monolingual English speakers, for example. Because you’re used to learning languages. You know how to do it."

Odendaal pointed out that Theron’s comments reflected a hegemonic view of English "which sees this language as the only road to advancement without realising the value of multilingualism and mother tongue education".

"The latter has been proven time and again by various prominent linguists. It is ironic that she made this comment while the PanSALB Multilingualism Conference was taking place in Johannesburg. To quote the esteemed African academic Prof Kwesi Prah: 'No society makes progress on the basis of a borrowed languages.' Of course, proficiency in English is a valuable skill, but research has proven that people not only learn different subjects better in their mother tongue, but also learn a second language easier once they mastered their mother tongue.

"Was Afrikaans 'not helpful' to Dr Chris Barnard who received his whole school education in Afrikaans? Languages aren't problems or barriers, but resources that can and should be utilised."

READ | 'Disturbing': Language Board hits back at Charlize Theron's comments about Afrikaans 'dying'

A diverse community of speakers

In statement released on Friday, the The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) noted Theron’s "disparaging comments with concern", adding: "The comments are not only disheartening but are disturbing, as they are inaccurate and misleading. According to Stats SA’s Community Survey of 2018, Afrikaans is the 3rd most spoken language in the country making up 12.2% of the population."

According to PanSALB, Theron’s comments "perpetuate the persistent misconception that Afrikaans is only spoken by white 'boere' South Africans, which could not be farther from the truth as 60% of the people that speak the language are black".

Odendaal also touched on Theron’s comments that Afrikaans was a "bastardised" form of Dutch, with influence from other European languages.

"It has long been known that Afrikaans was formed out of a contact situation between speakers of various Eastern languages (like Malay and Indonesian), indigenous South African languages (like Khoi), and European languages (like Dutch).

"Afrikaans is a unique language that brought together Africa, the East and Europe. To reduce it to a bastardised form of Dutch, perpetuates the idea created during apartheid that Afrikaans is only the language of the Afrikaners or a so-called "white" language. This not only dismisses the role of the diversity of speakers in the development of Afrikaans, but also ignores the important role Afrikaans plays as an identity and cultural marker for this community."

Suidooster star Jawaahier Petersen also weighed in on the topic, saying: "I wouldn’t say that the language is dying. I think we are in a beautiful place in our country now where there is so much inclusivity for the diversity of Afrikaans and the roots of Afrikaans. Varied roots of Afrikaans. It's almost like we have rebirth of Afrikaans."

Petersen added: "People are taking ownership of the language and it doesn't belong to one particular group of people. The language belongs to the people who speak it. I don’t think it's dying. The standardised or formalised version of the language has now taken a new shape and that's a beautiful thing for this country and a beautiful thing for the people who speak the language, and the ownership of the language for the country."

At the time of writing this article, Theron had not responded to the backlash she’s received for her comments. 

READ | Local TV stars respond to Charlize Theron: 'Afrikaans is alive and kicking'

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