Preserving culture in language

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Steeped in rich colours and textures, South Africa’s heritage extends to an array of languages spoken around the country.

“A lot of our culture is embedded in language; our identity is carried through the idioms and prose of our colourful languages,” says Chief Executive Officer of the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), Lance Schultz.

South Africa celebrates Heritage Month annually in September. The month is used to celebrate the nation’s diverse culture and heritage, among it the country’s 11 official languages.

He points out that language is much more than a communication tool and influences the way that one views the world.

“But most importantly, language can be used to access or to exclude people from socioeconomic opportunities. The colonisers of Africa and the apartheid regime understood that to achieve their goal to subjugate the African people they needed to strip them off their identity, their language rights. Language was used as an oppression tool and is now critical to the empowerment of our people,” says Schultz in an interview with SAnews.

According to Statistics South Africa, isiZulu at 25.3 % was the most commonly spoken language by individuals in South African households. It is followed by isiXhosa at 14.8 percent and Afrikaans at 12.2 percent respectively.

“While English only accounts for the sixth most common language spoken inside of South African households at 8.1 percent, it is the second-most prevalent language spoken outside of homes, at 16.6 percent preceded only by isiZulu. There is obviously something wrong with the way we conduct our public life that is inconsistent with the reality of our linguistic diversity.”

South Africa has 11 official languages namely: Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

The PanSALB was established by parliament to develop the 11 official languages and to promote multilingualism. The constitution makes reference to the establishment of PanSALB in Section 6 when describing language rights.

The PanSALB Act mandates that it initiate studies and research aimed at promoting and creating conditions for the development of all 11 official languages, plus the Khoe, San and South African sign language.

Language imperatives

On whether language has taken a backseat given the other priorities the country needs to address, Schultz says that legislatively, the country is one of the most progressive countries on the continent.

“However, with all this enabling legislation, the implementation of language imperatives is what holds African languages back. No language can develop without being used and our indigenous languages are still to enjoy parity of esteem.”

In a constantly changing world where digital media continues to gain ground, there appears to be little use of indigenous languages on digital media platforms, including social media.

He adds that African people have been conditioned that for them to participate in public life, they have to engage in languages that are deemed “acceptable” following years of oppression.

“So, what can we do to bring our languages into the 21st century? The simple answer to that is by simply using them! No language can develop outside of its users. The ordinary users of a language are the ones that have the power to ensure that there is a digital footprint of their languages.”

Language and education

In October 2020, Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande published the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The policy aims to provide a framework for the development and strengthening of all 11 official languages, with a particular focus on the development of African languages as languages of scholarship, teaching, learning and communication at universities, amongst others.

In the framework, the Department of Higher Education and Training said that language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many students at South African higher education institutions.

“Despite their status as official languages, indigenous languages have in the past and at present, structurally not been afforded the official space to function as academic and scientific languages,” read the document published in the government gazette. The framework became effective this year.

Commenting on this Schultz adds that PanSALB supports efforts to decolonise the education system.

“In order for our society to effectively elevate the status of our indigenous languages, we have to transform and elevate them into languages of learning through which information and knowledge can be shared and learned.

“PanSALB has begun the process of engaging universities across the country to advocate for the adoption and effective implementation of the language policy framework and will, going forward be monitoring the implementation thereof.”’

In his Heritage Day address this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said government is supporting several lexicography units at institutions of higher learning in terminology development for African languages. 

“We have paid specific attention to the Khoi and San languages. Today we have candidates successfully submitting their Masters dissertations and Doctoral theses in African languages, irrespective of the field of study. 
“This would have been unheard of in the past,” said President Ramaphosa adding that the incremental introduction of African languages policy in schools is having the desired impact. He said this is challenging the notion that knowledge of English is enough to progress in society.

Use of Official Languages Act

Meanwhile, compliance with language legislation is a challenge for government.

In 2019, PANSALB released the Comprehensive Report on the Use of Official Languages Act (UOLA) 12 of 2012. The report found that the country runs the risk of losing its indigenous languages, something that was attributed to the lack of the implementation of the act.

The act aims to provide for the regulation and monitoring of the use of official languages by national government for government purposes. It also aims to require the adoption of a language policy by a national department, national public entity and national public enterprise, to provide for the establishment and functions of a national language unit and to facilitate intergovernmental coordination of language units among others.

On how far departments have come since the report was released, Schultz says there is still a long way to go in terms of compliance to language legislation.

“Government departments are neither compliant, neither do they submit their annual reports on their language policies as required by the Official Languages Act. During the 2021/22 financial year, only about 30% government departments submitted their annual reports. PanSALB is still studying the annual language reports submitted for compliance to the UOLA requirements.”

Developing indigenous languages

However, Schultz points out that there are some encouraging steps taken by government towards the development of indigenous languages such as the implementation of Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual Education (MTBBE) by the Department of Basic Education which has yielded some great results in the pilot project conducted in the Eastern Cape.

“The effective implementation of the department’s plans is especially critical as we enter into the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) as declared by UNESCO to highlight the rights of an individual to have access to education in their mother tongue and the ability to participate in public life using their language.”

On the power that young people have to preserve their mother tongues, he says that young people are influenced by society around them.

“If we teach them in their languages and instil a sense of pride in their ability to acquire knowledge in their own languages, then the future of our indigenous languages will be just fine. Change must begin with us as government, and as society to revitilise our languages and elevate them to their rightful place.”

Moving forward

Recently the country developed the first bilingual South African Sign Language (SASL) Dictionary. This was part of efforts to remove barriers that prevent persons in the deaf community from communicating effectively.

As part of continued efforts to develop SASL, the PANSALB has been working closely with the National Institute for the Deaf (NID) to standardise and authenticate the dictionary.

The launch of the dictionary earlier this month came at a time when the country is working towards the officialisation of the South African Sign Language as the 12th official language to ensure that deaf communities use their language freely like any South African.

With Heritage Month coming to a close at the end of the week, Schultz reminded South Africans that individuals that belong to the different language groups are custodians of that language.

“Whilst we may have enabling language prescripts in the country, that alone will not preserve indigenous languages. It is the speakers of the languages that must take ownership of their languages by using them.”

President Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

While diverse, the willingness to learn one another’s languages, points to South Africans ability to embrace and learn from one other.