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Significance of indigenous languages

Mafika Lubisi

A child is born within a particular culture. Language is one of the important mediums through which this child is oriented into the philosophy of life of his group. The mother tongue is sine qua non in his endeavour to adulthood. For this child to belong to his group he must learn the language of his people. Hence it is more than important that the indigenous languages are developed to an extent that they will be able to be used in all walks of life. Hats off to the stalwarts who developed Afrikaans to what it is today. We can learn a good lesson that it is only the speakers of the language who can develop it to be on par with other developed languages.

Another way of developing the indigenous languages is to see to it that our young ones are taught in these languages. In other words, the indigenous languages must be used as languages of learning and teaching. Language and culture are two sides of a coin; therefore, learning indigenous languages will enable our children to learn more about their respective cultures and thereby take all the good things that their cultures offer, especially respect and humanity.

Reconciliation is the buzzword in South Africa and one way of releasing it is through the learning of indigenous languages by white South Africans. Multilingualism is the government’s strategy for making it possible for different racial groups that were hitherto separated, to come together. It is therefore vital that whites learn indigenous languages in their environs. The language policy of each province can provide a guide in this regard. Learning the indigenous languages will not only act as a sign of respect but is another way of peeping through the culture of the people concerned and thereby foster the spirit of oneness. Language, like land, is something one can die for; therefore, if people address you in your language you feel more at ease.

The survival of any language depends on how its elders, guided by the wisdom of their ancestors, pass it on to future generations. The problem of Africans, especially the elite resorting to English and neglecting their indigenous languages, is not confined to South Africa but the whole of Africa suffers the same syndrome. The colonial language policy is key to this problem. Bamgbose (2000:1) put it this way:

In my first opinion, there are three major reasons. First, the colonial period saw the imposition of a one-language model for administration. This language, whether English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish, became the dominant language in practically all aspects of the public domain. Second, although each colonial territory remained multilingual, attitudes to the one-language model came to supersede the acceptance of multilingualism. The elite, which had been spawned by the colonial language policy and which consequently became the main beneficiary of the policy, came to embrace the virtues of a dominant official language, particularly as such a language was, and is, also accepted as a language of wider communication. Third, on gaining independence, leaders of the emergent African countries became preoccupied with ensuring that the newly independent countries ceased to be a mere conglomeration of nationalities or a mere “geographical expression”, forced into a union by the colonial power, but became a truly integrated nation.

Many educated people feel ease in expressing themselves in the medium of English even at places and in situations where this is not warranted. Take, for instance, a politician who is addressing a crowd that is 99% black but chooses English rather than his mother tongue. This virus is killing the indigenous languages in that the young ones think that their languages are useless if their leaders are not using them in public domains. I wonder how one feel if he/she persistently uses English or another foreign language in places where the majority of the people do not understand English. Many people are shy to use their particular language and prefer English instead. This syndrome is also common with speakers of Afrikaans who find themselves in places dominated by English, like KwaZulu-Natal; they feel shy if you address them in Afrikaans.

It is suggested that people use their languages in all domains of life. The Markdata report of 2000 about the use of home languages reveals that in South Africa there are only 22% people other than English who speak and understand the “Queen’s language” fluently. Let us not fool ourselves and think that we know this language, to the detriment of our languages.

The constitution of our country guarantees multilingualism, therefore it would be a step in a right direction if all former model C schools and private schools introduced African languages as additional languages in order to assist in the spirit of national reconciliation. Moreover, there must be institutions and centres that offer the teaching of African languages to people who were denied opportunities to learn these languages before. Multilingualism in South Africa does not necessarily mean knowing two languages like English and Afrikaans but at least an African language in addition. People who know more than two languages are practising multilingualism.

It is a mammoth task to learn a new language, especially at a late stage of life, but it is better to start than winging about the past. Let us make multilingualism work by at least learning how to converse in other languages.

Learning African languages as additional languages will assist in the development of these languages. It will also assist speakers to be proud of themselves and I am optimistic that they will reciprocate by showing respect and hospitality to the new speakers of their language. The government must also come to the fore and provide all the necessary resources for the teaching and learning of African languages by whites.

It is true that our country faces many challenging and pressing social issues that need much attention. However, the issue of languages must be included in the list of priorities. It will be a step in the right direction if all South Africans become multilingual. This will foster the spirit of ubuntu that is lacking. Moreover, people of different races will respect each other and thereby speed up the pace of national reconciliation.

Most Africans have lost touch with their cultures and as a result they do not know whether they are coming or going. There is no longer that uniqueness in us, that which makes us proud of ourselves. The communal spirit is lost. If one has lost touch with his culture he will have no respect for humanity. It is therefore advisable that we give priority to the development of our languages as our culture is embedded in our languages. The development of our languages will inevitably bring back Africanism.

Mafika Lubisi is a lecturer in Seswati at the University of Zululand, where he was responsible for introducing the subject. He is also Chairman of the Seswati Language Board and a member of the Mpumalanga Language Committee.


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