June 14, 2003

Government to promote local languages

Many South Africans believe the use of English is their key to socio-economic mobility and prestige, which makes it one of the greatest threats to indigenous languages and multilingualism. But the government is determined to give all 11 official South African languages a place in the sun. It wants to facilitate access to government services and information and to promote sign language and other indigenous languages, even the most obscure, such as the languages spoken by the Khoi and San. The national language policy framework released in November by Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Ben Ngubane was officially set in motion this week at a conference in Johannesburg.

The policy provides for a South African Languages Act later this year and a national government department for language next year. About 25 languages are spoken in South Africa, of which 11 have been granted official status in the Constitution on the grounds that 98% of the population uses them. They are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Pedi, English, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Ndebele.

"The policy framework is fundamental to the management of our diverse language resources and the achievement of [the] government's goal to promote democracy," said Ngubane. "It is through language that people can participate directly in the economics, politics and human rights of our country. When a language loses its value in these spheres the status of the language diminishes. This framework provides a bottom-up approach to democracy." The policy is the fruit of a process that began in 1995. Ngubane appointed a language plan task group that spent about seven years researching and consulting community members, public- and private-sector representatives and language professionals and academics throughout South Africa. "This step was essential in view of the lack of tolerance for linguistic diversity and the resultant 'multi- lingualism is a costly problem' approach evident in some sectors of our society, and the growing criticism from language stakeholders of the tendency towards unilingualism in South Africa," wrote Ngubane in the foreword to the framework policy.

The researchers found that some languages, primarily English and Afrikaans, dominated others, disempowering speakers of the dominated languages. The apartheid government's policy of bilingualism promoted Afrikaans and English to the detriment of the all other languages in respect of technical terminology, dictionaries and standardisation.

Although all the indigenous languages are constitutionally recognised, the framework notes that their underdevelopment means that even the speakers of the languages have a negative attitude towards them. "The preference for English and/or Afrikaans is persuaded by their status in dealing with technical jargon ... in as much as English is viewed as the key to socio-economic mobility and prestige it poses a threat to the use and maintenance of the indigenous languages and ... multilingualism," the policy framework states.

All government departments at national, provincial and local level are bound by the framework. The departments will set up language units with translators and computer technology to manage terminology. Training programmes in translation, interpreting and lexicography will be offered to public servants. Important government documentation will be translated into the 11 languages, less-important documents will be translated into six of the languages on a rotating basis. Multilingual publications will be phased in over three years. National lexicography units will develop dictionaries in all the official languages.

Language-awareness campaigns and dictionaries to raise the status of the Khoi and San languages and sign languages are being developed. The National Treasury has estimated that implementing the policy will require a budget increase of less than 2%. The estimated cost of a language unit phased in over the medium-term is R18 243 510.

The establishment of a national department for language is based on the assumption that the South African Languages Act will come into effect by September. "We have a big mountain to climb, but we have to ensure that policy becomes a reality in our lives ... making us proud of our unique South African identity," said Ngubane. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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