Are African Languages an Endangered Species?

Published on 29th November 2006

One of the main drivers of development in Africa is education. It is of consuming interest therefore, to educators and policy-makers alike, to establish the most efficient educational methods for use in the African context. One feature that is immediately apparent throughout much of Africa, is the fact that many children are not taught in their mother tongue. While there are sound economic reasons for this policy, research has shown that lack of mother tongue instruction can lead to sub-optimal language development.

Language skills are undoubtedly one of the most important foundations for successful development and economic success. Since every aspect of economic and social life is governed in some way by language, lack of proficiency in these basics will severely impair future prospects for any learner.

There is a drive throughout much of Africa, and indeed the rest of the world, to teach children in the English language. The reasons for this choice are primarily economic, since English is perceived as the ‘international language of business’, and indeed is the most prolific language used in internet and digital communication. The need for proficiency in English is not in dispute in this regard, for while it carries with it the memory of colonialism, it remains a useful tool for the use of all.

The problem arises, however, when English is used as the primary language of instruction in favour of mother tongue education. There is a mounting body of evidence to show that lack of mother tongue instruction, and in particular English ‘immersion’ programmes in which teaching is conducted solely in English, have the effect of diminishing the language skills of learners.

Language and South Africa

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996), recognises 11 official languages. These are: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. According to the national census (Statistics South Africa, 2001), IsiZulu is the most widely spoken language, with 10.7 million people or 23.8% of the population claiming this as their home or first language. The second most prolific language is IsiXhosa, with 7.9 million people or 17.6% of the population claiming it as their mother tongue. In contrast, English is only the sixth most common home language, with only 3.7 million people or 8.2% of the population brought up speaking English as their first language. Despite these demographic trends, the majority of schools in South Africa use English as their primary language of instruction.

In a country with an estimated 44.8 million people (Statistics South Africa, 2001) where only 3.7 million of those people speak English as a first language, the decision to use English as the primary language of instruction is based on considerations other than the linguistic background of the population. It is anomalous to discover a situation in which the overwhelmingly dominant language of instruction differs from the home language of the majority of the population.

The Union Act of 1910 saw the amalgamation of the former Boer republics with the Cape Colony and Natal, and the statutory recognition of Afrikaans as a joint official language with English. Economic power resided primarily with the English language, but Afrikaners began entering the job market. There was, however, a growing hostility towards the dominance of English among certain sectors of the Afrikaner population, and a rapid spread of the concept of taalstryd (language struggle).Language loyalty became the biggest social division in white South African society.

During this time the use of English within black South Africa was steadily increasing due to growing access to state and mission schools for blacks and urbanisation. The black urban population was increasing rapidly, and since English was often the language of the workplace, blacks’ use of English was growing at a similar rate.

As the Afrikaner nationalist movement grew in power, education was increasingly perceived as a weapon through which to advance Afrikaans and reduce the influence of English in South Africa. It was on this linguistic battleground then, that the black population suffered some of the greatest casualties.

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 saw the implementation of enforced mother tongue instruction (MTI) for blacks, with a systematic reduction of the role of English in black education. This removal of the English language was supplemented with an increased emphasis placed on Afrikaans instruction. MTI was to continue until secondary school, at which point blacks were to learn through both English and Afrikaans. These measures were enforced despite strong opposition from both white and black communities.

This linguistic segregation was coupled with large scale social segregation, so that blacks were limited not only in their educational opportunities, but their freedom of movement and association. This effectively denied blacks access not only to education, but restricted their opportunities to interact with proficient English speakers at almost every level.

There was little funding for Bantu education and less interest in its eventual success, and thus the system ended in utter failure. The collapse of Bantu education is partly responsible for the current situation in which blacks seem to associate mother tongue education with mediocrity and failure. The opposition and anger surrounding the forced Afrikaans medium of instruction in black schools culminated in the Soweto riots of 1976.

Current language policy in South Africa is intended to be a form of additive bilingualism. Since the primary language of instruction for the vast majority of schools in South Africa is English however, and the structure of the learning experience is very similar to an English immersion programme, it is not clear that subtractive bilingualism is not taking place.

Language policy in South Africa has been somewhat contradictory in its approach, as the South African School Act of 1996 clearly demands that a learner’s mother tongue should be primary throughout their education. The second or third languages are intended only to supplement a child’s education which is carried out in their first language (L1). It is somewhat anomalous then that the vast majority of education in South Africa is conducted in English. There are myriad reasons for this phenomenon, the most basic being the lack of textbooks and teaching aids in the official languages.

The lack of true mother tongue instruction in South Africa is also premised on the attitudes of blacks towards their own indigenous languages.  There is an apparent perception within the black community that indigenous languages are of low status. The second factor is the undeniable usefulness of English globally as a business tool. While usage of English in Africa should be promoted as an economic tool, education in the mother tongue not only strengthens indigenous languages, but also is the most effective way of mastering English language skills.

Most recently the South African Minister of Education, Ms. Naledi Pandor, began a drive to teach children in their mother tongue until the end of primary school. This policy should have the outcome of strengthening indigenous South African languages, and should also allow children to fully develop their base language skills to allow for a better understanding of second language instruction once it is introduced.

By Marco MacFarlane
South African Institute of Race Relations


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