Our speech could unite us

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Language is the key to social cohesion. No, I am not suggesting that all South Africans should learn and speak to each other in English. We have tried that. Although important, it has largely failed —only we elite have been touched by the magic tongue.

Since the publishing of images of penises and shower heads underpinned by English subtitles, we seem further away from true social cohesion than Sechaba is to marrying a white girl in the soap opera Isidingo, or artist Brett Murray is from being appointed as minister without portfolio in President Jacob Zuma's Cabinet.

Just travel to Europe or the United States and speak our South African English and you will see how foreign you are. No one understands you. "What do you mean: cellular phone, biltong, pap, skelm, imbizo, skedonk, just now, seriyas, eish?" they ask.

English is arguably fragmenting into varieties such as "Spanglish", "Chinglish" and "Xhonglish". Xhonglish, a mixture of isiXhosa and English, may still provide us with social cohesion through, for example, kwaito music and other mixed language forms such as iscamtho (township slang) spoken in the cities.

But I would argue that it is by the teaching and learning of African languages widely that social cohesion will occur. If everyone in this country spoke an African language, we could talk about social cohesion. Underpinning a language is a culture. Language is what moves it along, creating a window into an individual's inner world and space.

One Rhodes University second language student studying isiXhosa for a law course put it as follows: "The cultural consciousness that comes with learning a new language is hugely enriching."

If you speak someone's language, or you are conversant with it, you can enter social spaces that create automatic and more sustainable social cohesion, rather than the spurious and temporary social cohesion created by sporting events such as the football World Cup.

Although such events are important, we are lacking social cohesion on a mega-national scale. By speaking one another's languages, we will begin to share and trust one another's lives — we will intersect with one another beyond the immediate workplace. This national trust, underpinned by the way we speak to each other, is at the heart of social cohesion. I believe it is at the heart of a prosperous South Africa in which we would be truly proud and respectful of one another as individuals.

The government has undertaken to spearhead social cohesion initiatives, but we do not score very highly with regard to the implementation of the national language policy. We have not even successfully implemented our language in education policy, which is at the heart of social cohesion and encourages the use of all our languages in the educational system.

This is why the recently reported initiative, led by Naledi Mbude-Shale in the Eastern Cape education department, to make isiXhosa the medium of teaching is so revolutionary and visionary. The initiative involves teaching English as a subject, thereby creating a greater chance of improved cognition and understanding among pupils in the mother tongue without prejudicing their acquisition of English.

But, in this case, the condition of success is that the teachers of English must be good.

The initiative is logical: you learn best in a language you understand best, that is, your mother tongue. This is not an either-or matter. You can still learn to speak English effectively as a subject. Under apartheid, many of us were taught content subjects in Afrikaans while learning to speak English fluently when it was taught as a subject, thereby allowing for transfer from the mother tongue to English with ease, even for content subjects and university education.

This approach surely does not amount to creating ignorance, as many school governing bodies fear, but to competence in both languages, accompanied by an understanding of what is being taught.

At least we owe our pupils that, lest we relegate ourselves to becoming global language idiots. This debate goes to the heart of what apartheid tried to achieve for large sections of the population — low self-esteem among individuals because their languages and cultures were seen as second-rate.

Let me give an example I recently experienced. I began to write this article while I was sitting at OR Tambo International Airport, having just had my shoes polished next to Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. My conversation in isiXhosa with the gentleman polishing my shoes ended with him asking whether I perhaps had a daughter that he could marry. Our general chit-chat ranged from politics to personal life and upbringing (we grew up in the same area of the Eastern Cape) to economics. When I left, I received a nod and wave of acknowledgment from Vavi, amid loud farewells from my new friends.

None of this would have happened and I would not have experienced a deep sense of social cohesion if I had not been able to shoulder my responsibility as a multilingual South African.

Multilingual citizens make for sustainable unity and for better South African and global citizens with a clear sense of belonging. Throughout the world students are required to learn languages other than English before graduating, even in the United States. The Chinese are doing it in Chinese, the South Koreans are doing it in Korean, the Germans do it in German and South Africans must do it in many tongues, including English.

Literacy does not relate to being literate in English alone. In Limpopo, for instance, I am arguably illiterate because I cannot speak and write in Tshivenda.

I believe that the teaching and learning of African languages needs to be both a bottom-up and a top-down initiative. We need to begin with the teaching of grade R pupils upwards, while at the same time allowing universities to facilitate both mother-tongue and vocation-specific second and additional language acquisition and teaching. For example, universities need to graduate teachers who can enter the schooling system as competent first and additional language teachers. To achieve this, the departments of basic education and of higher education and training need to co-operate.

We need to reinvent our languages so that they become a pillar for social cohesion and development. Every student must have fluent oracy (listening, understanding and speaking) and literacy skills (reading and writing) in an African language and English by the time they leave the schooling system.

Likewise, no student should be able to graduate from a South African university without having passed a mother-tongue or vocation-specific second and additional African language course. Language is at the heart of who we are as South Africans. The very languages that created so much pain under apartheid now have the potential to set us free and to unify us today.

  • Russell H Kaschula is professor of African language studies and head of the school of languages at Rhodes University  This article was published on the Mail & Guardian.