#HeritageDay: Challenges facing African languages

English remains highly valued in South Africa, but what about African languages?

'Molweni bafundi', meaning 'Greetings students'. Picture: EWN

CAPE TOWN - Language is a very important part of our identity. The late Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart."

South Africa has 11 official languages, with the mostly used language being isiZulu followed by isiXhosa.

However, English is the most preferred language in the media, schools and corporate world. This has caused some concern to those who fear their languages will soon face extinction.

University of Cape Town's Dr Tessa Dowling, who teaches isiXhosa as a second language, says most of their first year students can speak isiXhosa but are unable to write it.

"I have Tswana students who are doing isiXhosa, and Pedi and Tsonga students. But I wouldn't have a Xhosa student unless that Xhosa student can't write their own language. We have more and more cases where a person can speak isiXhosa, but they can't read or write it.

"This is a new thing to me. I mean, 20 years ago when I was teaching I never had a Xhosa student who couldn't read their own language and that's what I get now. So we allow them into the class. So it's a new challenge."

Retired isiXhosa teacher Mamngwevu Nqolombe says parents must play a role in preserving their languages.

"We're lost. We've allowed ourselves to embrace the western culture while losing our heritage in the process. Our children go to multiracial schools and when they come home, we don't speak to them in our languages. We use English when communicating with our families."

Dowling says language purists must accept that languages cannot remain pure, particularly in urban areas.

"People are using more and more English words as opposed to Afrikaans words which was the case 20 years ago. For example, people speak of_ i-weather, une-stress_."

She adds there's nothing wrong with the evolution of language.

"We are very confused about what word is which language. And I think that's fine. What isn't fine is when we start saying to people 'you're speaking wrong. You're using the wrong language.' People says 'well we are silenced. We don't have any language now that is right. The way I speak isn't right. I don't even have a language that's valid'."

Dowling also says dictionaries should move with the times.

"The dictionaries need to change. The dictionaries need to reflect that if Simphiwe Dana sings 'ndiready ukundiza...' Ndiready is a Xhosa word. This language is valid. It needs to be validated. We need to research how languages change, how we take different words from different languages. We need researchers."

However, she admits African languages are lagging behind in research.

"We have very few PhD students. We have one PhD student. In most languages you have 14 master's students and 10 doctorate students but with African languages we're far behind in research capacity and I think that makes it very difficult to document what's actually happening with the languages."

There is also this belief that African languages add no value. Dowling says she has first-hand experience of this perception.

"Children come to university on open day. They see Spanish or Arabic stalls and then they come to mine and they say 'Ha! What am I going to study isiXhosa for?' They say we failed it at school."

She thinks the way African languages are portrayed in books needs to change for young people to be attracted to it.

"Yes, sure, people are poor and they are getting sick, but a lot more is happening in their lives. People are falling in love. Hilarious things are happening to them. So why is it always one narrative for African languages? It's always the same narrative of ukwaluka, amasiko, which are beautiful things, but it's not contemporary.

"Why can't our novelists write novels using the varieties that people speak, talking about the things that people talk about? The hilarious Whatsapps that I get from my friends... Why isn't that used in our novel writing and education?"

Dowling says authorities need to invest in African languages if they're to survive.

"I think for African languages to gain value and gain speakers, we are going to have to invest money in the way they are taught and the material we create. That will create a new cohort of speakers, who may not have grown up with it as a first language, but will be greater pioneers for its research, its learning and understanding."