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African languages need to be developed - Blade Nzimande

Date Released: Thu, 22 November 2012 15:09 +0200

Minister says both wealthy and poor black children lose out from a lack of mother tongue education.

 Keynote address by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr BE Nzimande, MP, at the 10th Anniversary of the Stellenbosch University Language Centre

22 Nov 2012

The role of African Languages in a 21st century education

Programme Director
Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Prof Russel Botman
Prof Herman Batibo from Botswana
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to have been invited to deliver an address at this event which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Stellenbosch University Language Centre.

The importance of the development of African languages in our education system, in particular higher education, is well established and cannot be over emphasised. Over the years we have witnessed the gradual death of our languages, apart from English and Afrikaans, in the absence of their development as languages of teaching and learning, commerce and academia more generally.

The debate is no longer whether we should develop African languages as languages of scholarship in academia, but rather when and how should these languages be part of our academic discourse beyond the mere symbolism that is currently at play at most of our universities.

At this stage of our young democracy, we should be taking stock of the progress we have made in the development of our languages and not debate whether or not it is practical or viable to affirm the value of African languages. We are past the stages of debate. Eighteen years into our democracy, we should be past the stage where we are still surprised of the so few dissertations written or research conducted in any of our indigenous languages.

I am sure you will agree with me that we have been on a downward slope when it comes to ensuring the vibrant development of our languages. From an early age many of our children, particularly those from middle class families, are taught and converse in English in their homes. This would not be problematic if it was not done at the expense of indigenous languages.

Parents do this because they see advantages in getting their children ready for the school curriculum as delivered in former ‘model C' schools, as it is mostly delivered in English. In these schools it is often not possible to study an African language other than Afrikaans. Children become alienated from the language of their parents and grandparents, and lose their heritage. Parents do this because they know that in the longer term, fluency in English is a greater advantage to opportunities in higher education and later in the world of work.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of our young children in rural and poor communities learn their home language or African mother tongue without being exposed to English. They start school learning in their mother tongue for the first few years and thereafter move across to English as the medium of instruction before they have a chance to learn, read and think effectively in their own languages and fully understand English.

This leads to major hardships and problems related to learning that could be avoided if African languages were offered as the medium of instruction, i.e. teaching and learning, all the way through school and into the Grade 12 examinations.

Both sets of our children and youth, the wealthy and the poor, loose out in this perverse situation.

The development of African languages is tied to social justice which is an indispensable element of nation building and the promotion of social cohesion in our country. The development of all official languages is a necessity for human rights and dignity, access and success at post-school institutions, preservation of our heritage, communication and culture. Ngugi wa Thiongo makes this point clear in his famous essay "The Language of African Literature" when he says and I quote "language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture".

He goes on to say that, "language, as culture, is the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next". Therefore the death of a language is the death of a culture and should not be something we must take lightly.

It stands to reason that we cannot effectively preserve and promote the cultures and histories of our people if we do not pay special attention to the development of their languages. In other words, the best route to preserve peoples' cultures is to start with their languages. We know that languages do not develop ‘naturally' or on their own, as some would want us to believe, but their development is a result of concerted human effort and commitment.

Languages are developed within definite limits to suit the interests of different groups of people. Such is evident in the case of so-called standard languages as opposed to non-standard regional or social dialect varieties which our indigenous languages were made to assume under apartheid. Thus the late Neville Alexander advised us that, and I quote, "the former [standard languages] are invariably the preferred varieties of the ruling class or ruling strata in any given society. They prevail as a norm because of the economic, political-military, or cultural-symbolic power of the rulers, not because they are "natural" in any meaning of the term" (Alexandra, 2007: After Apartheid: the Language Question).

Trends in post-colonial Africa show that many African countries have struggled to develop and maintain indigenous languages, particularly in higher education. Examples of strong preservation of these languages within the academy are few and far between. Colonial languages have continued to dominate in education, commerce, the media, and in international and continental exchanges. While we cannot ignore global imperatives for communication and academic transfer, engagement and knowledge building, we do not have to neglect indigenous languages.

I often find that language is a barrier in scholarship and we do not have to go far to find examples of these. If we look across the globe, at the same time as English has developed as an international language of commonality, many advanced countries use their own languages as languages of teaching, learning and scholarship to name but a few for example French, German, Japanese, Spanish. The barrier is when languages are not developed as languages of scholarship.

The South African Constitution is clear about the importance of all languages and the rights of their speakers. Section 29 (2) of the Bill of Rights states that, "Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable". However in practice, this right is not in place. When we fail to develop our languages, we are failing our constitutional obligation and this is a serious matter.

The Language Policy for Higher Education promulgated in 2002 calls for "the simultaneous development of a multilingual environment in which all our languages are developed as academic and/or scientific languages while at the same time ensuring that the existing languages of instruction do not serve as a barrier to access and success".

The Policy notes that "the role of language and access to language skills is critical to ensure the rights of individuals to realise their full potential to participate in and contribute to the social, cultural intellectual, economic and political life of South African society".

The development of African languages is therefore critical for active citizenship, to ensure that ordinary South Africans are able to participate in public discussions in the language they are most comfortable with. In other words, the development of indigenous languages is a fundamental building block to our democracy. The reality in South Africa today is that many people are excluded from national debates as these are carried out mostly in English, which statistics show is spoken by less than 10% of South Africans.

I am aware that universities are at different levels of promoting multilingualism within their operations. There are universities which have developed language policies with multilingualism cited as an important element or drive in their policies. However, I am also aware that to some universities multilingualism and the promotion of African languages remain mere policy expressions that have no articulation in reality.

To these universities the concept of multilingualism is often invoked as evidence of compliance with policy and Constitutional imperatives, there is very little on the ground to show that the institution is indeed committed to develop indigenous African languages.

While the department commends those institutions which have made consistent progress in affirming African languages in their day to day operations, including the introduction of these languages in some study programmes, we remain concerned with the slow development of African languages at our universities.

The long-term goal is to go beyond ‘functional usage' or communication, and develop African languages into languages of teaching and research within universities. We need to debunk the myth that African languages cannot be used for high level scientific research and philosophical thinking. It is therefore important that they need to be developed as such.

In an essay on "the challenge of the pan-Africanist intellectual in the era of globalisation", Ngugi wa Thiongo cites the renowned African historian, Cheik anta Diop, saying that "no language has a monopoly on cognitive vocabulary, that every language could develop its terms for science and technology...." Ngugi goes on to correctly argue that "even languages like English and French had to overcome similar claims of inadequate vehicles for philosophy and scientific thought as against the once dominant Latin". In South Africa we have a perfect example from our own history of how this can be done in a relatively short time, i.e. Afrikaans. This was a language that was deliberately developed into a language of science and commerce from a kitchen ‘taal'. Since 1948 it has developed into a strong language of intellectual production. The quest for the development of African languages should draw inspiration from these historical examples.

Language is the entry point for development because it allows for direct communication with others and thus becomes a motivation for people to want to learn more. Therefore, for the majority of communities to be actively involved in global communication networks, indigenous African languages would need to expand their sphere of influence so that they are able to communicate important knowledge, not only locally but globally as well.

I do not want to dwell too much on processes that my department has put in place to ensure the development of indigenous African languages in higher education. I am sure you are already aware of the Ministerial Advisory Panel that I have put together to look into this matter.

The establishment of this Advisory Panel was, amongst others, triggered by the findings of the Soudien Report published in 2008 which noted increasing "feelings of marginalisation by English second language speakers at universities". The report recommended that the Minister initiates a broad review of the obstacles facing the implementation of effective language policies and practices at institutions.

The Panel will submit its report in June next year with the expectation that based on the terms of reference, the report will provide concrete recommendations and proposals on interventions to be made to speed up the development of African languages within higher education institutions.

My Ministry believes that our education system needs a radical shift of mindset and begin to see the development and affirmation of African languages as a Constitutional obligation in order to ensure a better life for our people, and an important imperative towards inclusive citizenship. We cannot successfully move forward as a nation when large numbers of our people are left outside public deliberations as a result of our limiting language choices.

As Prah (2007) puts it, we cannot continue with a situation where the overwhelming majorities of South African society are culturally relatively-deprived and linguistically silenced. This is not sustainable and certainly threatens the stability of our democracy. We will have to understand how we can do this throughout the education system. It is clear that this cannot be done simply at the higher education level. The development of the languages however must be led by the higher education system.

We must see multilingualism and cultural diversity as an asset that must be nurtured and fruitfully utilised, and not as a threat or a problem to run away from. African languages are resources that should enrich us all as a nation. Surely, they help us to better understand ourselves and relationships with one another. Their development will not isolate us from the rest of the global knowledge communities, but will indeed enrich our engagement with these communities. They affirm who we are and enable us to engage with the rest of humanity as equals in knowledge production and other areas of human engagement.

Once again, thank you to the Stellenbosch University Language Centre and the organisers of this gathering for the invitation to come and share some ideas on role and position of African languages in higher education. I wish you success in your deliberations and I hope you will share the outcome with the Ministerial Panel on the Development of African Languages.

I thank you.

  • This statement was issued by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

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