Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Safeguarding and nurturing our indigenous languages

By Pamela Moeng

One of my small luxuries is a subscription to the Sunday Times taken up mainly because it was accompanied by Monday through Friday delivery of The Times.

Often I only read my morning paper in the evening, lounging in bed after a trying eternity at the day job. Yesterday was no exception, and I read Megan Hall's piece on language - mother tongue (any African mother tongue) - with interest. Hall doesn't think any African language should die on this generation's watch.

As someone who studied Spanish throughout high school and varsity only to promptly go to a place where no one else spoke Spanish, I think I agree with Hall. She speaks eloquently about the legacy a language leaves with its speakers, citing poetry and novels along with letters and sms's as carriers of the beauty and utility of the words.

Hall highlights famed South African singer Simphiwe Dana's work around literacy. Dana believes that maintaining the most widely spoken South African language - isiZulu - might at least ensure all children get to learn one African language.

Hall disagrees with Dana. She thinks the emotional connection of the speakers of a specific language with that language means that learning just any African language rather than the speaker's mother tongue is nearly as bad as learning "a language with a colonial and apartheid history".

I've forgotten my Spanish and have been too lazy to learn more than a bit of any other language. I often regret that laziness and wish I understood more of the languages I hear spoken around me, but even more I wish I could read those languages without the wall of an English translation between me and the writer.

Strangely this week one of the Daily Writing Tips was about word choice and how it shows your leanings - either toward the Norman French or the Anglo Saxon English. Choosing "celestial" rather than "heavenly" reveals your French roots.

Language is such an elemental part of any person or community that preserving the language seems like preserving the essence of that person or community.

Here in South Africa the eleven official languages are a challenge to government (mother tongue instruction/ communication); publishers (profit margins on low print runs); and, citizens generally (language divides as well as unites individuals and groups).

In an ideal world, languages should be maintained but the practical implications can be barriers to ensuring that all South African languages are valued and nurtured equally.

What are your thoughts?

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