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Roll Out The Red Carpet For African Languages Instead Of Pulling The Rug Out…

Earlier this year in Paris, UNESCO hosted the official global launch of 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages.

This red-carpet affair called for an international drive to recognise, celebrate and preserve languages as “repositor[ies] for true

identit[ies]”,histories, traditions and memories. Over 7 000 languages are spoken across the world, though remarkably,

only 4% of these languages are spoken by a mammoth 97% of the world’s population. And, through our increasing

interconnectedness, many of the smaller languages are on track for extinction, with some already recognised

by the UN as critically endangered.


Every two weeks another language disappears, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.

As languages disappear, so too does the richness of the cultural groups whose tongues once formed their words.

Said poet Octavio Paz, “for every language that becomes extinct, an image of man disappears”.

Forty percent of the world’s population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.

Although English dominates the global stage, together with Mandarin and Spanish,

in South Africa less than 10% of our population speak it as their mother tongue.

Towering above English as a spoken language are isiXhosa, isiZulu and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans.


That doesn’t mean, however, that our African languages are safe. One of our indigenous languages facing extinction 

is Nluu (or N||ng), a San language found in the Northern Cape that is considered to be one of the original languages of Southern

Africa. Today, only a handful of fluent Nluu speakers survive to tell its tale.

And what will happen to our other small languages, such as !Xun, Birwa and Khwe?

But is it only the lesser-known, somewhat obscure languages that need a spotlight in this international year of indigenous

languages?Absolutely not. While English may not be the de facto talk of the town in South Africa,

in written form it continues to dwarf others. This is particularly problematic in the education space.


Think about the fact that the vast majority of children who speak an African language at home switch to English as their

primary language of teaching and learning in Grade 4. Consider too that when the critical foundations for learning

- including literacy development -are being laid, only 6% of children’s storybooks are produced in isiZulu

(mother tongue to 22.7% of the population), while 40% are produced in English (home language of 9.6%).

Research from all over the world tells us that when children learn to read in a language they understand,

they are far more likely to have fulfilling academic careers and are better positioned to make a dignified contribution to society.

Recent shared wisdom from various education experts in South Africa is that the 2018 matric pass rate is closer to 40%

than the 78.2% claimed by politicians.


What is the impact of language on these rates?


Our Constitution stipulates that, “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of

their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.”

While an audacious goal given our nation’s rich linguistic diversity,

can we hold up a mirror and honestly say that enough has been done to try to fulfil this promise?

Says African author and sociology professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, “It was an enormous milestone to achieve an end

to the apartheid era, but how we move forward in the efforts to consolidate democracy, human rights,

economic and social justice and a level playing field in all respects for all members of the citizenry will depend greatly

on how these linguistic challenges are addressed.” A strong sentiment exists that the failure of South African education

to transform linguistically means that the “previously advantaged” continue to be privileged.


I wonder, however, whether this structural rug-pulling from under African children’s feet advantages anyone in the country

in the long term? With 78% of children unable to read for meaning in Grade 4, and only 40% matriculating,

what will our country look like in five to ten years’ time?

It’s for these reasons that the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign is working hard to roll out the red carpet for some

of our indigenous languages.


The campaign tirelessly promotes the use of African languages in reading, writing and storytelling.

In 2018, we helped create opportunities for nearly 130 000 children to fall in love with books and stories, in their own languages,

through a network of partner reading clubs.  You too can get involved by joining Nal’ibali’s FUNda Leader network.


Jade Jacobsohn the Managing Director at Nal’ibali.


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