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African languages are cool, ok?

There is a crisis in African languages, particularly at school level, that everyone concerned — language experts, academics and the government — will have to address.

I say this after having spent time with learners at Grahamstown schools, who spoke to me about the role of African languages in learning, teaching and socialisation.

The learners are at two township government schools (Mrwetyana High and Nombulelo High), an English-medium private school (Kings-wood High) and a dual-medium (English and Afrikaans) public school (Mary Waters High). They said they did not speak English as fluently and confidently as they would like to. It was clear that all felt it was important to speak and understand English better, both to be accepted socially and to have better employment opportunities. In other words, they viewed English as the language.

“If you speak English well, people respect you. But if you speak isi-Xhosa, it does not matter how well you speak it, no one looks at you differently,” said Sanelisiwe Njongo.

She might have been expressing a personal view but this does seem to be how most young black South Africans think and feel about their mother tongues. One gets the impression that most of them just cannot wait to finish high school, where these “boring” (African) languages are stuffed down their throats.

If many think that African languages have no value because expertise in them offers few opportunities in life, this is unfortunate — it is precisely the young who must keep these languages from extinction.

Negative attitudes by young people about indigenous languages might well be reinforced by the English dominance of social networking mediums such as Twitter, Facebook and SMSes that rely on instant communications.

But to consider only these factors would be a simplistic approach to the crisis in African languages. To get learners interested in their mother tongues and to feel proud to be associated with them requires urgent transformation, which the government, and especially the department of basic education, has a duty to make.

The government seems to be dragging its feet. Many in government present themselves as transformers but, when it comes to implementation, there is suddenly nobody willing to talk and take any initiative. And this silence might be one reason learners see no point in these languages in the first place.

It does not help that the same people responsible for designating official languages send their children to schools, often private ones, where the languages are either not taught or, if they are, interest few learners. I also place some blame for this on African parents, particularly those who are educated and, usually, financially well off.

Government officials might well be dragging their feet because the crisis doesn’t really affect them — if your child is at a posh school in town, why care about a barefoot child in Mthatha? And in posh schools, I do not know whether one’s English accent is also a requirement for promotion to the next grade, but learners do view it as a condition of acceptance in that social setting.

Young people want to live a better life, to be important in their communities and to appear “cool” — and all this is unfortunately associated with the English language in one way or another. If African languages are not seen as languages that can bring riches to one’s life, no one will really care whether they live or die.

Yet all the negative things young people associate with African languages amount to myths. African languages are not dead, they are not boring and, given a chance, they can become languages of economic development. But they have never been aligned with intellectualisation, which means they are not visible enough in official places. As a result no one really knows how they fit into the academic or corporate arenas.

African languages can be used as languages of learning and teaching at university level. They can be transformed to be market related, so that anyone who has studied them stands a good chance of succeeding in the working environment. But this will require changing the school curriculum so that the youth, and others interested in learning these languages, know there will be opportunities for them in the workplace.

That is the role of the government, which must drive the necessary groundwork and research. This should include finding out from learners who are faced with these languages at school what curriculum changes they would like to see. And the government needs to work with universities and other institutions to design appropriate courses that might trigger the interest of the young.

The media, especially the print media, are not helping in this regard. Other than Isolezwe in KwaZulu-Natal, there are no notable newspapers with any African language as a medium. Here the usual excuse is that money is the deciding factor — we are told, without proof, that advertisers will not invest in such newspapers or media houses. Political economics comes into this, because the four big media groups are in the main white-owned and so not interested in developing African languages. These media groups have one thing in common — profit — even if that is at the expense of African languages.

But no media house can say it has tried using African languages and that business was unsustainable. And if the success of Isolezwe is anything to go by, then the reluctance of the media to use African languages on financial grounds is baseless.

Learners need to be encouraged to aim at being publishers and writers in their mother tongues but, if the media are not encouraging that, then we have a serious problem. Learners need to be told that they can become prominent journalists who speak English but are also fluent in their own African languages.

Even now, they can become translators of radio and TV content, and language practitioners in several institutions that need translation services. But we do not have enough language policymakers and reviewers for big institutions such as universities and media houses because these languages are seen as “uncool” and nobody seems to care.

We can’t dispute the fact that English is a global language and that many people need to be fluent in it. However, African languages need to be visible as well, so that they can grow and really become official languages. We need to localise and globalise at the same time. African languages, our cultural vehicles, need to be given a chance and that chance starts in our schools.

Thandeka Mapi teaches in the African language studies department at Rhodes University’s school of languages

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