Who is responsible for preserving indigenous languages?

Professor Vuyisile Msila has emphasised the importance of everyone playing their role in preserving indigenous languages and using them to grow economies.

Mubanga Lumpa (L) and professor Vuyisile Msila (R) at the Mariam Tladi Reading and Book Club event. Picture: Winnie Theletsane/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Columnist and University of South Africa's Professor Vuyisile Msila says using English as a universal language should not lead to the extinction of indigenous languages and instead, English should be used as a tool to preserve every other language.

Speaking at the Mariam Tladi Reading and Book Club gathering over the weekend, Msila emphasised the importance of everyone playing their role in preserving indigenous languages and ultimately using them to grow economies and social development.

"It should fall on all institutions; families, schools, governments etc. It should be the responsibility of everyone in society."

Co-panellist librarian Mubanga Lumpa said the most important role lay with families, as that's where children’s roots lay.

"The home plays a very key role in language. We need a society that looks after a language with confidence because if that confidence is lost at home, it will be difficult for the children to learn out there."

But at the heart of the matter is how does society now begin and change the perception that English is a measure of intelligence.

Msila said there was a greater need to assess how English was introduced to South Africans and Africans at large in the first place.

"The settlers started mission schools in the Eastern Cape; taking you from the community and making sure that you're alienated from the community. There was the Zonnebloom College where they took all the sons of the chiefs and took them there so as to be westernised. It was very deliberate so that when they come back, they do not identify with the culture of the people they live with."

He noted that colonisers made Africans mimic what they were doing and they went on a mission to kill the languages, the historic and cultural sites “thus ensuring that they contain the identity of the colonised people eventually.".

But in a country where street names are being renamed in African languages, where debates of renaming sites after struggle heroes are taking place in Parliament and where even universities are dropping Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, how then do we ensure that one language doesn't enjoy all the glory at the expense of others?

“I’m thinking of former Stellenbosch University vice-chancellor Professor [Russel] Botman, who made a speech once at a time when his university was in a huge cloud of language uproar, he used a very crucial term - Ubuntu of Language. And what he meant was that my language will exist because yours exists. But unfortunately, we think of dominance all the time, that this language is more important than this one.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has declared 2019 as the year of indigenous languages and the Mariam Tladi book club will be hosting a number of events this year to commemorate the late South African novelist who died in November 2017 while tackling issues affecting indigenous languages.