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Comments by Elinor Sisulu

Patron of the Multilingual Action Group*

Good evening everyone; sanibonani nonke. It is an honour to be called upon to say a few words on this unique and special occasion. Since this is the launch of the Multilingual Action Group, I will say nothing of the virtues or the necessity of multilingualism, because I assume that there is no need to preach to the converted. As longstanding proponents of multilingualism many of you have moved beyond words and are demanding action, hence the launching of this new initiative.

I do not claim to be a language specialist, so I will really make comments from a lay person’s point of view. My approach to multilingualism is informed by my experiences as a writer and one who is interested in promoting a culture of reading.

It is in this context that I am very conscious of the fact that while we live in a country that has eleven official languages, in reality, at the level of government, in the corporate world, the media, our formal institutions and the national education system, we have one dominant language, which is English. We have a constitution that protects the language rights of all its citizens, yet the majority of our citizens continue to suffer linguistic discrimination on a daily basis.

All indications are that the hegemony of English will increase with the corresponding marginalisation of indigenous African languages. Why is this so? The reasons are many and complex and I will not even attempt to delve into them in this brief address. I will just deal with one of the reasons for the present state of affairs and that is investment, or rather, lack of it. We as a society have not invested sufficiently in our marginalised and neglected languages. Consider the lack of investment in three key areas: parliament, universities and children’s literature.

  • Parliament
    Last year the Portfolio Committee on Communication called the SABC to book for not fulfilling its constitutional obligations on language diversity. I was amazed that not even one person from the SABC team questioned the Portfolio Committee as to whether Parliament itself had fulfilled its constitutional obligations on language. It is testimony to the lack of investment in multilingualism that our National Assembly does not have a full interpretation and translation service in all the official languages. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a parliamentarian who is not conversant in English to function effectively in our parliament. I remember a member of parliament from the Transkei who had serious difficulties in her first few months in parliament because she was not proficient in English. After a monumental effort she improved her English to the extent that she could follow and participate in debates. While I admired her tenacity I wondered why it was necessary for her to struggle so hard. We should have a situation whereby public representatives from any part of the country can not only express themselves in any of the official languages but are also able to operate in parliament in their own language through the services of highly skilled translators and interpreters.

  • Universities
    Another area where increased investment is called for is in the African language departments of our universities. I was horrified to read a report sometime ago that the African languages department of a certain university was contemplating retrenching a number of its lecturers because the department was attracting fewer and fewer students every year. I wondered at the sanity of the policy-makers. Why retrench lecturers if there are few students in a particular year? Surely that period should be used for lecturers to do research, write books, work on dictionaries, translate works of literature and do a host of other things that need to be done to further develop our languages?

    Secondly, before retrenching lecturers because of falling student numbers, would it not make sense to look at why fewer students are studying African languages? One obvious reason is that members of this generation of students take subjects that will stand them in good stead in the job market and a degree or a major in an African language does not seem to be in demand in the job market. It is difficult to understand why, because there is certainly a major shortage of experienced and qualified African language teachers.

    I had a discussion with a university lecturer who claimed he could dramatically reverse the trend of declining student numbers within three months. How would he do it? Simply by offering bursaries and scholarships. His idea made a lot of sense. These days much emphasis is placed on science and maths. If, for argument’s sake, the government offered bursaries for students to combine science subjects with at least one or two African languages, all the African language departments in all the universities would be full in no time and we would turn out more graduates who would be qualified to teach maths and science in their mother tongues.

  • Children’s literature
    My passion is children’s literature and one of my main dreams is that we will one day achieve, on this continent, a vibrant, truly multilingual children’s literature in which books are available in every single language of this continent. The advantage of children learning to read in their mother tongue from the outset has been proved beyond doubt.
    At the All-Africa Conference on Children’s Reading held a few years ago, discussions emphasised the importance of mother-tongue and oral language traditions as a source of literacy. In 1995 the first Zambian National Reading Forum report indicated overwhelming consensus that initial literacy should be achieved as quickly as possible in a local language. The report recommended the adoption of an existing programme similar to the one-year Breakthrough to Literacy Course (BTL) developed by the Molteno Project and implemented successfully in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Molteno’s reading and writing programme is based on students’ knowledge of the spoken form of their own language. Many other examples were provided from other parts of the continent that demonstrated the benefits of mother-tongue literacy and multilingualism.

    With advances in technology, publishing in many languages has become easier than ever before. Yet we still do not have a truly multilingual literature in this country. Why is this so? Again we come to the question of investment.

    Structural adjustment programmes throughout the continent have resulted in cuts in government education budgets. Consequently library budgets have shrunk to the extent that there is no money to spend on books. This is a disaster for the education of African children, because the inability to read is often the root cause of failure to progress in school. South Africa is no exception and it would be interesting to analyse library expenditure in the past decade and to examine whether there is a relationship to children’s books published in African languages.

    I am convinced that a multilingual children’s literature involves more than just providing books in different languages. It goes to the heart of the education system and its relationship to our identities. Unfortunately, too many of us have remained in this grey area of confusion because we were forced by colonial education to dump our languages and our stories in order to learn how to read and write in colonial languages about things which bore no relation to our own reality. We were taught to read in a mechanical way using readers that were devoid of meaning. We were subjected to “Janet and John” and “Dick and Jane”, dreary books that invoked little passion and emotion. There was a complete disjuncture between the knowledge gained in our families and communities and the knowledge of the classroom.

    The great divide between home and school, the failure of education systems to recognise the oral cultures of communities, especially folklore and storytelling traditions, and the lack of culturally relevant materials in indigenous languages are all factors which contribute to the lack of a reading culture in many African communities.

    There is a huge potential for the development of a thriving multilingual children’s literature in South Africa. This country shares languages with its neighbours and there are possibilities for joint publishing of children’s books — possibilities that we have hardly begun to explore. We do have projects such as First Words in Print under Centre for the Book and I know that PRAESA has produced a number of very interesting and attractive children’s books in various languages. There are also some publishers that have produced valuable work, publishing books in co-operation with publishers from elsewhere on the continent Ö

    But this is just not enough.

    It would be a huge boost for children’s literature if the Department of Education undertook to buy copies of the best books published in African languages for all the schools in the country. Not only would it boost multilingualism and satisfy a glaring educational need, it would also boost business and create jobs. All those university lecturers who are being retrenched could be employed writing, translating and publishing children’s books.

    * Address given on Augustus 21st, 2003 at the organisation’s launch in Langa.


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