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EDITORIAL | All our mother tongues should be treated equally

SA is home to an extraordinarily rich variety of indigenous languages – and they need to be protected

22 September 2020 - 20:09 By Sunday Times Daily

One of the most beautiful aspects of SA’s rich heritage are our languages. Our indigenous languages are redolent with meaning about the various geographies in which they are spoken, and reveal much about the people who speak them.

Tsonga people have a number of idioms in which the notorious heat of northern Limpopo features strongly. “The sun has come out with its grandchildren,” describes an especially hot day.

Similarly, the mountainous terrain of Lesotho is invoked in many idioms, including “A man’s back is as big as a hill”. Sesotho speakers will say this when a man is urinating in public; his back a hill that he believes blocks the view of others.

Images of North West cattle country are evoked in the many references to cattle in the idioms of the Tswana people. And what can top the isiNdebele expression, “hardship encircles the buttocks”, to relate that one is going through a really tough time?

We need to protect our indigenous languages – and we need to teach our children about their importance. Too often youngsters attending schools where the medium of instruction is English start drifting away from their mother tongues.

This might be partly because, even though we have 11 official languages, these are often not treated equally by both government institutions and the private sector. Take a look at package inserts for medicine, for example. These contain crucial information about side-effects and dosages. You will find them to have been written in English and possibly in Afrikaans. Of course it’s impractical to have the instructions printed in all 11 languages. But the fact remains that English and Afrikaans are too often still treated as the two official languages of communication.

Today the Sunday Times is paying tribute to all our languages and celebrating Heritage Day by hosting a panel discussion at noon, called The languages we love.

We need to preserve our languages and our heritage – it is after all what makes us so special.

To attend today’s free online event, which is being emceed by comedian Tyson Ngubeni, register here.

You will be pleased you did.