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Fri Oct 24 09:03:04 SAST 2014

Language and identity

Sunday Times Editorial | 22 January, 2012 00:08

Sunday Times Editorial: LANGUAGE is very much embedded in culture and is central to entrenching identity. South Africa, a multicultural country in transition, has long realised the powerful role of language in fostering national unity after many years, especially during apartheid, of promoting some languages at the expense of others. So, when a new society came into being in 1994, multilingualism took centre stage.

At school, it was recognised that pupils had the constitutional right to demand mother-tongue tuition. In reality, providing a language of choice has often proved difficult, even contentious, despite schools becoming increasingly integrated. Some schools have been unable, or unwilling, to offer a variety of languages, preferring to stick to English and Afrikaans. Reasons vary. For one, it's economical; there's no need to hire extra teachers. Another reason is the non-availability of a pupil's preferred language in a particular province. Our languages tend to be region-specific.

Whatever the reasons for shunning African languages, the results are dire for pupils who feel they being robbed of a sense of identity. In addition, even if a pupil from another language group wants to learn a new South African language, it's not possible, thereby stifling the growth of our much-vaunted multilingualism.

Indeed, if linguistic trends at school hold, English will maintain its current domination. Some groups are acutely aware of this. AfriForum is up in arms, but it is waging a sectarian battle by concerning itself only with the right of Afrikaans. South Africans need to forge unity in fighting the school language issue. We cannot afford a laager mentality.

Schools need to take African languages seriously and make provision for their teaching. Qualified teachers of indigenous languages need to be found. A distinction needs to be made between pupils who are keen to learn these languages formally - from speaking it to writing it well - and those who wish to get to grips with only the basics to get by in conversation. In a country awash with rich and diverse languages, it's a shame not to seriously promote multilingualism at school.

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