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  • Die Taalsekretariaat
  • Doelstelling
  • Language policy and practice in industry: Ensuring the usage of African languages

    Leila Kajee

    Department of Communication
    ML Sultan Technikon
    PO Box 1334
    e-mail: kajeel@wpo.mlsultan.ac.za

    November 2000


    Language has always been, and appears to remain, a contentious issue in South Africa. Language policy has given all eleven languages equitable status in South Africa, but does language practice reflect language policy? English still appears to be the dominant language. This paper examines some of the language issues facing South African workers since the implementation of the Constitution and in the light of training and skills development. Thereafter, a survey conducted among a sample of workers in a South African organisation is discussed in an attempt to establish how workers feel about language usage. In conclusion, recommendations are made regarding creating an awareness of and sensitivity to multilingualism in South African industry.

    Language policy and practice in industry: Ensuring the usage of African languages

    A     Introduction

    Language, literacy and communication are intrinsic to human development and central to lifelong learning, and cannot be ignored. Language empowers human beings to make and negotiate meaning, access information and participate in the social, political and economic life of society (Green Paper on Further Education and Training, 1998:2:4). In industry, communication skills are considered as important as technical skills in the sense that the acquisition of skills depends on language and the ability to communicate (Narsee 1997:100).

    Stakeholders in education, training and development are required to plan within the integrated framework of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). According to the SAQA Bulletin (1997:16), in order to be registered as a National Qualification, Fundamental Learning programmes should contain a minimum of 20 out of 72 credits from the field of Communication Studies and Language.

    The focus of this paper is language usage in industry, given that the Constitution enshrines a multilingual language policy. Thereafter the need for language training and skills development in industry is considered. The paper focuses on language development from the perspective of the views of a sample of workers at a large South African organisation.

    B     Language in the workplace

    The South African workplace is rich in cultural and linguistic diversity. With work environments moving away from the rigid hierarchies and assembly lines that characterised the American-inspired Fordist workplace, the South African workplace is now a place for more collaboration and team work, with employees participating at various levels of decision-making (Mahomed 1996). In South Africa this is in keeping with the spirit of Ubuntu (roughly translated ’people are people through other people’). For collaboration and teamwork to occur, communication is essential.

    The term communication as referred to in this paper may be interpreted in the broad sense to include reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Communication includes proficiency in negotiating, problem-solving, managing conflict and creative thinking. Lack of proficiency in these skills can result in lack of productivity in the workplace, which ultimately impacts on the economy.

    According to the Human Sciences Research Council/National Training Board (HSRC/NTB, 1989) investigation into training in communication in the workplace, a gap or absence of a common language occurs in the workplace. The language of management and supervisors is primarily English and Afrikaans, a carry-over from the days of apartheid. Many managers do not share a common language with the predominantly black workers. It is this interface that needs remediation in the South African workplace (Ribbens and Regan 1995:290). To compound the issue, certain areas may be fairly homogenous, for example, largely Xhosa-speaking in the Transkei. In other areas, all South African languages may exist side by side. In the absence of a common language, Fanakalo (a combination of English, Afrikaans and Zulu) was spoken on the mines and by businessmen communicating with black employees and customers. Fanakalo has a limited vocabulary, and is often resented by blacks for misrepresenting messages and oversimplifying their language (HSRC/NTB Investigation, 1989).

    The South African workplace is still dominated largely by English, and to a lesser extent, Afrikaans, as the mediums of communication. Often the reason given for English dominance is that it is the international language. International yes, but one of many. The languages of international communication are changing as the world changes. The emphasis is actually shifting from English to European and Asian languages. The insistence, therefore, that English is fundamental to entering the international arena is “linguistic colonialism and a denial of a basic human right” (McDermott in Extra and Maartens 1998:105). Knowledge of English is certainly useful; however, in South Africa one must first consider the needs of workers on the factory floor. Blacks make up the majority of the workforce at factory floor level, and as such have long been denied basic rights through apartheid policies that promoted pass laws and job reservation. Now that policies are designed to prevent marginalisation, attention must be given to whether workers have the skills necessary to advance in their jobs. Intrinsic to job advancement is the ability to communicate. If the absence of a common language among the workforce leads to ineffective communication and to communication barriers (HSRC/NTB Investigtion, 1989:1), then the price that must be paid is ineffective inter-group relations and lack of productivity.

    Language can be used to marginalise workers if they do not fully understand the language being used. If matters dealing with contracts, basic conditions of service, pension and health schemes are conducted in a language they do not understand, they are placed at a disadvantage. Communication between managers and workers and among workers themselves is another issue of concern if one considers the meetings, negotiations and discussions involved in the normal working day. According to LANGTAG (1996:105), 75 percent of the workers in South Africa are not sufficiently proficient in English. If English is used extensively in industry, where does this leave the worker? In addition, if managers and supervisors are unable to speak the major languages spoken by the workers, this can only serve to perpetuate misunderstandings and negative stereotypes.

    The workplace is not only linguistically diverse, but culturally diverse as well. Mkhize (Daily News, 31.8.1999) referred to the trend of not understanding one another as “communication breakdown syndrome”. Examples of linguistic and cultural insensitivity include not being able to pronounce names, Anglicising names, signs appearing only in English and Afrikaans in the workplace, or the predominant use of English in meetings. It is vital that the language ability of workers, managers and supervisors be upgraded to encourage mutual understanding. However, this will be successful only if cultural awareness is inculcated simultaneously. One way of addressing language and cultural diversity is through effective training and development.

    C     Training and skills development

    In any multicultural, multilingual environment it is imperative that diversity be addressed. Professor Bengu, former Minister of Education, stated that effective education, training and development is one of the answers to dealing with diversity (White Paper on Education and Training, 1996:2). Training and development are areas that are essential to give people the skills that are necessary for economic and employment growth and since the ANC assumed power in 1994, training, together with education, became a priority.

    Historically, training in South Africa has been racially determined (Mahomed 1996:7). Whites, for instance received most of the states’s training, which perpetuated the cycle of white dominance in the labour force. Job reservation for whites perpetuated the trend of marginalising Blacks in the labour force. In 1982, for instance, 92,9 percent white artisans were trained, compared to 3,1 percent black artisans (Kraak and van Holdt in Mahomed 1996:7).

    With white males having risen in employment ranks more rapidly than other South Africans, one of the prime functions of training must be redress (Green Paper on Employment and Occupational Equity, 1996:25). Improving the skills of the workforce is also essential to assist people in adapting to meet the changing demands of the world.

    Skills development emphasises performance by individuals, not only in the sense of performing routine tasks, but by the development of necessary competencies. Communication is a key competency. With the implementation of the Skills Development Act No. 97 of 1998 it is important that language and communication needs not be overlooked.

    The issue of language skills development can be approached on three levels:

  • By upgrading workers’ literacy skills in the mother-tongue, then in English.
  • By training managers and supervisors to communicate in the languages of the workers, at least at regional level. It would be unrealistic to expect competency in all eleven languages; however it is necessary for managers to speak the language of the majority of the workforce or the region.
  • By ensuring that training and skills development programmes are conducted in languages that are understood by the workers.

    Language development must also not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of cultural sensitivity. Language courses must therefore contain communication skills, human relations and cultural components.

    Although there is a growing need for language training, it is only the larger organisations that can afford specialised departments that offer language services. This creates a gap that can be filled by outsourcing. Adult learners also have highly specialised needs which must be considered. They may feel self-conscious about returning to the classroom and have to be motivated. Their job and family responsibilities must also be taken into account.

    Using the ongoing debate of language diversity in industry as a framework, the following account is of a survey conducted among workers in a South African organisation.

    D     Survey conducted on workers’ views of language usage in industry

    1.      Sample

    A survey of the views of workers on language usage and training and development was conducted at a large South African organisation. To maintain confidentiality, neither the organisation nor the workers are named in this report.

    A stratified random sample of sixteen workers was selected from a training course they were attending in the Pietermaritzburg area. The workers were from a variety of departments, including catering, maintenance and technical departments. Fifteen males and one female responded to the questionnaire. The age range was as follows: three were from the 30-39 age group, nine were from the 40-49 age group and four were from the 50-59 age group. All respondents spoke isiZulu as their first language and were selected on the basis that they were currently attending, or had attended, English literacy training.

    2.      Research instrument

    A survey questionnaire was administered to the workers. The questionnaire was made available in English and isiZulu, the mother-tongue of the workers. The English questionnaire was translated into Zulu by a translator and subjects were asked to use whichever questionnaire or language they felt comfortable using.

    The questionnaire consisted of four sections:

    Section A:

    Biographical details

    Section B:

    Language usage

    Part 1 - A grid where respondents could indicate which of the eleven languages they could read, write, speak and understand.

    Part 2 - A rating scale of subjects’ proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and understanding English.

    Part 3 - Everyday language. Respondents had to indicate on a grid which languages they used during five everyday situations, such as shopping and banking.

    Section C:


    Part 1  —  Reasons for attending literacy classes.

    Part 2  —  Level of improvement in English since attending literacy classes. Respondents had to rate given reasons ranging from most important to least important.

    Section D:

    Training courses

    Part 1  —  Details of other training courses workers had attended.

    Part 2  —  Languages that training courses were offered in.

    Part 3  —  Open-ended questions about the languages used by managers and supervisors when communicating with workers.

    Where respondents were expected to rate given items, the alternative “other” was given. Most questions took the form of grids and rating scales because the workers’ level of English proficiency was not known before the study. The format was also less time-consuming for respondents.

    3.      Findings

  • Language proficiency of workers

    All the workers reported to being able to read, speak and understand isiZulu; however, only 68,75% reported that they could write the language. The results also demonstrated that workers were conversant with the regional languages, English and isiZulu. Setswana, tsiVenda and xiTsonga for example, were spoken, written or read to a minimal extent.

  • English proficiency

    With regard to English proficiency (reading, writing, speaking and understanding), 31 percent of the workers claimed to be able to read and write English very well; 25 percent reported they could speak it very well; 12 percent maintained that they could not read, write or understand English at all; while 25 percent said they could not speak the language at all. This is interesting, because most of the training courses that workers attended (as reflected in a later question) were conducted in English.

  • Languages used in everyday situations

    The majority of the workers used isiZulu with family, friends and fellow workers. 56,25 percent said they could use isiZulu with their supervisors. However, 43,75 percent said they used English when communicating with supervisors and managers, although it must be noted that only 25 percent of them claimed to be reasonably proficient in English in an earlier question.

  • English literacy

    Respondents who had attended English literacy classes in the recent past, or who were currently attending literacy classes, were selected for the study. The period literacy classes had been attended ranged from one month to three years. Among the reasons cited for attending literacy classes were, in order of highest priority:

    º    bettering themselves
    º    getting a better job and earning more money
         (equally weighted)
    º    the ability to communicate in English
    º    improving their qualifications
    º    being able to attend other training courses which were
          conducted through the medium of English.

  • Training and development programmes

    The workers stated that the majority of training courses that they had attended were conducted in English (note that only 25 percent said they understood English well, as reflected in the discussion of a previous question). A few programmes that were attended were conducted in isiZulu, and a small percentage were dual medium, that is, conducted in both English and isiZulu, with the trainer switching between English and isiZulu. As a result, 50 percent of the workers stated that they understood very little of the training. It may be assumed that workers derived little benefit from the courses and would have benefited more, perhaps, if the courses had been conducted in isiZulu, or if workers had been exposed to more English literacy training before attending other comprehensive English-medium training courses.

    Despite the workers’ claim that they understood very little of the English-medium training, 62,5 percent said that they preferred training to be conducted through the medium of English. 25 percent opted for isiZulu, while 12,5 percent opted for English and Zulu dual-medium training.

    Some of the reasons given for preferring English-medium training included that they had to communicate with whites, that English was used at work, that they had to speak to their supervisors in English, that English was international, and that a knowledge of English would guarantee them a better job and more money.

    Reasons for preferring isiZulu-medium training were that it was the only language they could speak and write and that it was their language.

    The main reason given for dual-medium training was that it would “help blacks and whites stay together”.

  • Language used by supervisors

    The majority of the workers stated that supervisors could understand isiZulu; however, only 50 percent felt it was necessary for supervisors to speak the language. Those who felt it was important for supervisors to speak their language felt that if the workers could learn English, the supervisors should learn isiZulu so that they could talk and understand one another’s language and culture.

    4     Discussion

    Management representatives at the organisation maintained that the organisation did not have a language policy although it was in the process of drafting one. The business language, however was English. Following the implementation of the Skills Development Act, it is imperative that workers should attend training programmes to upgrade their skills. The main argument of this paper is that although skills development is crucial, it is a wasted effort if workers are not fully literate in the language in which development programmes are conducted. The argument is reminiscent of that echoed by van der Vyver (1983:9) and the HSRC/NTB Investigation (1989), namely, that for training to be successful, it should be conducted in the language that the trainer and the trainees understand best. It is vital that industry take the workers’ abilities into consideration when designing or outsourcing training programmes. Language forms the basis of the success or failure of all other training programmes and must be given more attention.

    Language courses are not compulsory in industry; however, the case for such courses is strong. Workers must be literate, first in their mother-tongue, thereafter in English. In addition, supervisors and managers must understand and speak the dominant African language of the workers and the region in order to narrow the language gap. Nor can language learning be conducted in isolation - components in cultural awareness and sensitivity are key ingredients of language acquisition. Regular language audits should also be conducted in order to assess the needs of workers and supervisors.

    5     Limitations

    The workers selected for the study belong to different departments in the organisation; however, not all departments are fully represented. The study may be broadened to include more subjects and departments, in other regions as well. It is also necessary to get a broader picture from other organisations. The views of supervisors and managers were also obtained for the original study, but it is beyond the scope of this report to include an analysis of their views at this stage.

    E     Suggestions for further research

    While it is necessary to study language needs and practices in industry, it must be noted that language is only one aspect of the broader diversity spectrum in South Africa. Other dimensions include culture and gender, for example, especially in the light of the Affirmative Action Act and the Employment Equity Act, and should be studied in more detail.

    With regard to language in particular it is also necessary to examine the components of language courses in order to ascertain whether they satisfy the demands of industry. Integral to the discussion is an analysis of the cost factor, especially the cost of translation and interpreting against the acquisition of other South African languages. What is imperative is that language usage in industry be taken more seriously. What does it cost to maintain a multilingual workforce, or more importantly, can South African industry afford it if we don’t?

    F     Conclusion

    Language is not just a tool for communication. If it were it would not be such an emotive issue. At present there appears to be a mismatch between Constitutional language policy and actual language practice in South African industry. The sample of workers surveyed represents only a microcosm of workers in South African industries and as such is not generalisable to the rest of the country. What is important is that we as South Africans acknowledge that we have policies that are designed to unify people, but when we opt for English in increasing numbers, are we not once again marginalising our previously marginalised African languages and speakers?

    Insisting on monolingualism denies many South Africans the right to their mother-tongue. As Maartens (1998:35) comments, it is only if South Africa’s leadership is seen to take pride in all South African languages and only if people are rewarded for their knowledge of a variety of languages in terms of jobs and status, that language practice can reflect policy.


    Human Sciences Research Council/National Training Board Investigation into training in Communication in the workplace. 1989. Pretoria. HSRC.

    Human Sciences Research Council/National Training Board Investigation into Skills Training in South Africa.1989. Pretoria. HSRC.

    Maartens, J. 1998. Multilingualism and language policy in South Africa. In: Extra, G and J. Maartens (eds). Multilingualism in a multicultural context. Tilburg University Press, Amsterdam.

    Mahomed, N. 1996. The integration of education and training in South Africa within the context of labour market theories and globalisation. Education Policy Unit Working Paper No. 11. University of Natal, Durban.

    McDermott, L. 1998. The case of English in South Africa. In: Extra, G and J. Maartens (eds). Multilingualism in a multicultural context. Tilburg University Press, Amsterdam.

    Narsee, S.D. 1997. An evaluation of the course Communication Skills 1 for engineering students at technikons in Natal. Unpublished Mtech Dissertation. Technikon Natal, Durban.

    Ribbens, R and T. Regan. 1995. Trade, industry and the business community. An input in language planning for a post-apartheid South Africa. In: Webb, V.(ed.). The LiCCA Report.

    South Africa. 1996. Towards a national language plan for South Africa. Final Report of the Language Plan Task Group (LANGTAG). Government Printers, Pretoria.

    South Africa. 1996. White Paper on Education and Training. Internet: govdocs/white_paper/educ

    South Africa. 1998. Skills Development Act No. 97. Government Printers, Pretoria.

    South Africa. 1998. Green Paper on Further Education and Training. Department of Education. Government Printers, Pretoria.

    Van der Vyver, D.H., J. T. Engelbrecht, D. S. Gxilishe. 1983. The effect of language training on labour relations and productivity in industry. Intus News 7(2):7-33.


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