Bridging divides: Professor Nkomo confronts linguistic prejudice

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Professor Dion Nkomo from the School of Languages and Literatures
[Pic credit: Uyanda Ntloko]
Professor Dion Nkomo from the School of Languages and Literatures [Pic credit: Uyanda Ntloko]

By Nizole Qete

Rhodes University recently gathered to celebrate the inaugural lecture of Professor Dion Nkomo, a distinguished scholar from the School of Languages and Literatures, who also serves as the NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, as he assumed the prestigious rank of full professor.

The event commenced with a welcoming speech by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela, who praised Professor Nkomo's remarkable journey. He highlighted Professor Nkomo's early life in Nkayi, Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, and his educational achievements. The Vice-Chancellor also emphasised the significant influence of Professor Nkomo's family, students, and colleagues on his career, who were described as his greatest inspiration. He acknowledged that Professor Nkomo's parents hold a special place as his greatest heroes.

Professor Nkomo's educational journey began at Katasa Primary School, followed by Mpumelelo Secondary School in Nkayi, where he laid the foundation for his academic pursuits. He then attended Mpopoma High School in Bulawayo, earning his General Certificate of Education at A level, majoring in English Literature, IsiNdebele, and Geography. During these formative years, Professor Nkomo developed a passion for languages and literature.

He pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Zimbabwe, focusing on English Literature, IsiNdebele, and Theatre Arts. Following this, he taught at Tshabanda High School. He later returned to the University of Zimbabwe as a research assistant at the African Languages Research Institute, where he co-edited "Isichazamazwi SezoMculo," a Ndebele dictionary of music terms. Continuing his academic journey, Professor Nkomo obtained an MPhil and a PhD in Lexicography at Stellenbosch University, complemented by a Rhodes University Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education. These achievements solidified his position as a knowledgeable educator in higher learning institutions.

Professor Nkomo presented his inaugural lecture titled "Words in the Way: Confronting and Overcoming Linguistic Prejudice." He began by emphasising the importance of words, quoting his former teacher's advice: "Every word in your work must be worth something”.

Professor Nkomo's lecture delved into the issue of linguistic prejudice, where languages sometimes take precedence over their speakers, leading to discrimination based on language. He used Zimbabwe, a country with 16 officially-recognised languages, as a backdrop for his insights. He emphasised the need to acknowledge and respect linguistic diversity within the country, challenging the misconception that Zimbabweans are proficient in English.

He noted that despite constitutional provisions recognising all 16 languages, there is internal linguistic imperialism whereby even if you exclude English within Zimbabwe's linguistic habitat, some languages are considered more important than others; Shona is regarded as the default language of Zimbabwe, excluding other languages. He remarked, "If I meet someone and I say I am from Zimbabwe, they say, 'makadii,' they don't ask which Zimbabwean language I speak. The expectation is that you must speak Shona. Aside from Ndebele and Shona, there are other languages and speakers of those languages who, for a long time, could not learn their languages at school; they had to learn Shona or Ndebele. That for me, is linguistic prejudice," he explained.

Comparing this situation with South Africa's language policies, Professor Nkomo highlighted the existence of democratic language policies and structures. However, he pointed out persistent challenges in intellectualising African languages. "First additional language English means that you are expected to perform academically in the other subjects using English. For a first additional language in isiXhosa, it is enough to be able to say “molo”. At universities, we get students who come with distinctions in isiXhosa yet they cannot write in isiXhosa, but that would not be expected in English. That, for me, is another form of linguistic prejudice whereby despite the policies saying that languages should be treated equally, clearly in terms of resources, African languages are not adequately provided for. The issue is that an excellent language policy was adopted, and relevant structures were established, but we still continue to revise the policies."

Professor Nkomo stressed that despite policies advocating for equal treatment, African languages still face inadequate resource allocation in education. He gave examples of students excelling in isiXhosa but struggling in written proficiency, unlike their English-speaking counterparts. He noted, "This unequal treatment in resource allocation and expectations perpetuates linguistic prejudice."

Concluding his lecture, Professor Nkomo shared his favourite isiXhosa word, "Enkosi," signifying gratitude. It encapsulated his message—a call for recognition, appreciation, and equitable treatment of all languages.

In a world where words hold immense power and language shapes our perceptions and interactions, Professor Nkomo's inaugural lecture serves as a poignant reminder of the urgency to confront and overcome linguistic prejudice. His journey adds depth to his impassioned plea for the equitable treatment of all languages—a message that resonates deeply and leaves a lasting impact.