In a multicultural country like South Africa, our plethora of languages has historically been a source of tension and dispute. Education Minister Blade Nzimande added fuel to the debate last year when he suggested that an African language may be necessary for university students to get their undergraduate degrees.
When South Africa adopted its democratic constitution in 1996, it recognised 11 official languages. It said that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.” Sixteen years later, however, it is evident that there is a great disconnect between language policy and language practice in South Africa, especially in the education sphere.
According to Nzimande, African languages are in “serious decline”. In the past, Grade One to Three could study two other languages in addition to English. One of these options was an African language. With the new school curriculum, however, pupils have the option of learning only one additional language. Many former Model C schools have scrapped African languages, only giving learners the option of studying Afrikaans as an additional language.
With this existing language policy, we could lose a number of our official languages. It is therefore crucial that an African language be compulsory at university in order to counter the decline of the use of these languages. If more students take an African language at tertiary level, it would also strengthen African language departments at universities. These departments have become considerably weaker with fewer students opting to study an African language. In an article in the Sowetan, Head of African languages at the University of Pretoria Professor Jerry Mojalefa, said that the Department of African Language Studies at the university used to be famous but has now lost its glow. The department currently offers isiZulu and Sepedi. It is also the only university in the country that offers isiNdebele. With a small number of students taking African languages at a postgraduate level, the growth of these languages in terms of research, teaching methodology, textbooks and literature is not as highly-developed as it could be.
Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Pan South African Language Board, Chris Swepu, seconds Nzimande’s suggestion. He says that the government should give indigenous languages an economical value by encouraging public service workers to learn the language they would use in the community where they work. Vincent Van Niekerk, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Pretoria, chose to study Zulu in his third year. He recommends that any student who will be working with people in South Africa take an African language because it will help them with their careers. “Even though I struggle or speak broken Zulu, it helps the patient to open up to you, as they see you are trying to accommodate them by speaking their language. This, in essence, gives you more information than what you would have had initially, which is vital in medicine.”
Furthermore, the status of African languages should be elevated because if more people are able to speak these languages, there will be greater communication across the borders created by race and language. Language is intrinsically linked to culture and identity. If you learn someone else’s language, it will help you understand their culture. This, in turn, will foster tolerance. Having language in common will help South Africa build an identity which supersedes our differences. Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, said, “One of the serious problems in South Africa is the need for us to open doors into our collective cultures. We won’t do this without learning each other’s languages.”
Any debate on languages in South Africa has, and always will be, a controversial one. As Khadija Patel from the Daily Maverick pointed out, what made the public uncomfortable with Blade Nzimande’s suggestion is his justification for such measures. He said that, “We can’t be expected to learn English and Afrikaans, yet they don’t learn our languages.” The minister succeeded in polarising black and white people, which overshadowed what is actually a very meaningful and relevant debate that all South Africans should engage in.
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande reinvigorated the language debate with his statement last year concerning African language implementation at tertiary level education, “One of the things we are looking into is … to what extent should we consider that every university student in South Africa must at least learn one African language as a condition for graduating”.
Firstly, the fact that there are 11 official languages in South Africa is not a feasible demarcation to have made. The actual definition of an official language states that it is a language that is given legal status and used for administrative affairs in the state’s political body.
There is no way that all 11 languages could be dealt with in this way. It would lead to a fracturing of state affairs, politics and every institution that comes with it. There isn’t even a publication that can deal with that kind of demand. As Rhona Kadalie points out in her opinion column on Politicsweb, “To legislate that all these languages must form part of the intellectual fabric of South African society, is simply impractical however desirable it might be. Where no practical plan and policy exist to develop and implement the acquisition of languages at primary school level, achieving this goal at university level is an even taller order.”
This begs the question: if Nzimande wants a multilingual country, then why start at tertiary level? Why not address the foundation and intermediate phases of education where the assimilation of a language is the easiest and most effective? It is not the responsibility of the tertiary institutions of our country to pander to the ideals of politicians who cannot provide the educational resources for more than 24,3 % of matric students who make it into university. Furthermore, only one third of that 24,3 % will graduate. Are 8,1 % of graduates really going to make the difference that Nzimande is calling for when these statistics have only taken into consideration those that have made it to matric?
As reported by the Daily Maverick, “To pass, students had to achieve 40% in their home language, 40% in two other subjects and 30% in three subjects. The overall pass rate says little about the quality of education.” The problem is not the lack of African languages, it’s the lack of education that would otherwise supplement the decline in those proficient in African languages and African language studies. With a tertiary pass result being no less than 50% it is no surprise that a third of tertiary students will drop out within their first year.
On an international level, business and trade are conducted in English. The educated CEOs, lawyers and politicians, amongst many others, depend on a proficiency in English to conduct business successfully. Yet English is not a compulsory language at tertiary-level education. Do students not have the right to choose what language they are educated in? If so, it is not the fault of the students coming in to university that their home language is unavailable. It is the fault of the education department and its inability to tackle the problem’s origin.
Greater proficiency in an African language could have multiple benefits, promote tolerance and generally increase the efficiency of communication among cultural borders. The answer is not, however, at a tertiary level. If we want a larger and more interactive African languages department, shouldn’t it start at primary school and home language level? Only once we have a generation that is not only multilingual, but excels at all academic endeavors, will our tertiary institutions be a little fuller and our lexicons a little larger for it.