Multilingualism must be celebrated as a resource, not a problem

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. AfricanGoals2010/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

February ought to be a joyful month for South African languages. It’s been declared “language activism month” by the Pan South African Languages Board, a constitutionally established body tasked with the promotion and development of the 11 official languages, as well as those recognised for religious and cultural purposes. The idea is to encourage people to promote and campaign actively for the use of the country’s 11 official languages in all disciplines across society.

Instead of celebrating its official languages, though, South Africa is caught in a rip current of English. This is sweeping the country further away from accepting, promoting and advancing the use of the other 10 languages.

Recently a group of parents took the Gauteng province’s education department to court because of language. They wanted their children to be accommodated in the Afrikaans-medium school and for the school to change its language of instruction to English. The parents and learners in question do not necessarily speak English as their mother tongue. But they fought for English, rather than an African language.

This is what South Africa’s former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, ruling in another case related to a school’s language of instruction, called “collateral irony”. People who speak an African language at home prefer that their children learn in English – with its long colonial history – than in their own mother tongues.

We believe there are two reasons for this. The first is political will. There’s been insufficient buy-in from the government about the importance of developing, promoting and using African languages, particularly in education. Second, ordinary South Africans are ill-informed about the advantages of mother tongue being used as the medium of instruction.

A rich resource

Those responsible for drawing up language policies and curricula must be aware of what scholar Richard Ruíz, who spearheaded a revitalisation of indigenous South American languages, calls the orientations of language planning.

Orientation, Ruíz says, refers to

a complex of dispositions toward language and its role, and toward languages and their role in society.

There are three orientations: language as a problem, language as a right and language as a resource.

Part of South Africa’s challenge is that language, and in particular multilingualism, is generally seen as a problem rather than as a rich resource. Several other African countries view their indigenous languages as resources: Kiswahili in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and Afan-Oromo in Ethiopia are all good examples of this. And some small corners of South Africa are getting it right; isiXhosa is used to teach maths and science in the Cofimvaba district of the Eastern Cape province.

If the country’s policymakers, politicians and ordinary citizens understood this it would open innumerable doors. It would create opportunities for language development and greater access to services – from government departments, courts of law, hospitals, banks and so on. This in turn would provide many new job opportunities for African language speakers.


Read more: How the continent's languages can unlock the potential of young Africans


South Africa’s courts do have interpreters for some local languages, but there have been complaints about the quality of their training and work. There’s no reason why this can’t be rectified, as models elsewhere in the world show. The courts of New Brunswick in Canada (www.officiallanguages.nb.ca>imce>pdfs) are staffed by judicial officers and attorneys who are linguistically competent in the region’s indigenous languages.

So what does South Africa need to shift its thinking about African languages from “problem” to resource? The answer is two-fold: better policies, and greater public awareness.

Seeking solutions

The country does not need a single central language policy, as is currently the case. Policies should be drafted and enacted at provincial level instead. South Africa has nine provinces, and their majority languages differ. That’s why a “one size fits all” central language policy isn’t working.

Each province’s dominant African language or languages should be promoted equally alongside English and Afrikaans.

There is also a need for ordinary South Africans to find their voice in fighting for multilingualism. Language activists must work together with bodies like the Pan South African Languages Board, the National Language Service (which is part of the Department of Arts and Culture), NGOs, schools, universities and the media to create multilingual awareness. This will help people to see language as a rich natural resource.

What is needed now is the emergence of a united and transformed multilingual vocal voice, where South Africa is seen as a country for speakers of all official languages rather than an English-only elite.