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Giving Voice to Mother Tongues of S. Africa

The nation has 11 official languages, but English and Afrikaans dominate. Proposed legislation would promote the others.

September 21, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Determined to instill in his son a sense of pride and cultural identity from the first day of his life, Phumlani Zwane applied for the child's birth certificate to be printed in Zulu -- his home language.

But when the document arrived it was in English and Afrikaans, languages that European settlers brought to South Africa in the 17th century and today are but two of the country's 11 official tongues.

Zwane complained to the nation's Human Rights Commission, only to be told that the Home Affairs office was not equipped to print birth certificates in any language other than English and Afrikaans.

"It irritated me very much," said the 32-year-old accountant. "To think that almost 10 years after democracy, we still can't get our birth rights written in our mother tongue. It's crazy."

If new legislation is enacted, Zwane's concerns about the marginalization of his mother tongue should soon be allayed.

The government is considering a bill to promote equal use of the 11 official tongues -- Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, Ndebele, Afrikaans and English.

Government officials say the measure would preserve indigenous languages and encourage tolerance for linguistic diversity, which was stifled under the former white-minority apartheid regime.

"It's a very emotive and political debate in South Africa," said Buyelwa Sonjica, deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology. "It's a debate of human rights and human dignity because language was right at the heart of discrimination."

Sonjica said that under the old regime, only people fluent in English and Afrikaans could get ahead. This sidelined a huge percentage of South Africa's largely poor black majority who contended that if their own vernaculars were codified and standardized, they would have been better able to advance.

The legislation is aimed at allowing South Africans to use the language of their choice in all aspects of life -- including public services, banking and education. All government documents eventually would be translated into the 11 official languages.

In the first phase, emphasis would be placed on six vernaculars: Venda, Tsonga, English, Afrikaans, one language from the Nguni family of languages (which includes Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu and Swati), and one from the Sotho family (which includes Sotho, Pedi and Tswana).

Although many Africans would still view knowledge of English as a key to socioeconomic mobility and prestige, linguistics experts hail the language initiative as revolutionary in an era when indigenous languages across Africa are threatened by the dominance of colonial languages such as English, French and Portuguese.

Although the aim is not to undermine the importance of European tongues -- which dominate in the fields of science, trade and technology -- promoting indigenous languages would encourage people to respect them, South African language specialists said.

"People think that if I cannot use it as a language for work, as a language of politics, then obviously I have to look down on that language," said Mohlomi Moleleki, professor of African languages at the University of the Free State and chairman of the government-funded Pan South African Language Board. "To say to me that language is an embodiment of culture is not enough. It has to put bread on the table. If you make these [home] languages relevant, you will elevate their status."

Because of the policy of promoting only Afrikaans and English -- to the detriment of the country's 25 other spoken languages, a majority of them dialects or offshoots of the nine main African languages -- few teaching materials, books and other resources can be found in indigenous vernaculars, commonly referred to as "mother tongues" or "home languages."

Under a new law, multilingual publications gradually would be phased in.

Lexicography units at universities across the country already have begun work on developing dictionaries in all the official languages. Words in each language are being recorded and standard terminologies created for use in speech, books and software.

Plans also are underway for two new national television channels that would require the use of all the official languages -- with English programming optional. According to a recently published broadcasting bill, the new "northern service" would be required to broadcast primarily in Tswana, Sotho, Pedi, Tsonga and Venda. The "southern service" would air programs mainly in Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Ndebele and Afrikaans.

The current lack of utilization of indigenous languages in the public arena has meant that there often is a negative attitude toward them, and speakers often are viewed as inferior for not speaking English.

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