The minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, recently called for all South African university graduates to learn at least one African language. To this there was a monolingual outcry, mainly from mlungus who won’t be dictated to.
But this really is one of the few initiatives where our nation’s idea of “social cohesion” could become a reality.
It does not take a communist to see that Russia and China fuel their economies in languages other than English. There are only a few countries in Africa in which English has effectively reached the masses as a language of learning and teaching, let alone communication and integration.
English remains a language of the elite, forbidding people from access to the first economy — as erstwhile president Thabo Mbeki referred to it — and relegating them to the second and, dare I suggest, third economy in which people have absolutely no knowledge of English.
With the exception of African languages such as Kiswahili, Arabic and Afrikaans (the third-biggest language in South Africa), the lack of use of African languages in high-status domains remains a reality. Afrikaans is an example of a young African language that has been intellectualised and can be used as a model for the development of other African languages.
There is a strong link between Julius Malema’s recent assertion to the Jewish community that the poor are coming to get “us” Gaddafi-style and how we use language to include and exclude people in this country. Today it is language that serves as a barrier to economic mobility, requiring us to think about how we can use language to transform class relations.
Language is crucial in creating understanding and linkages between the rich and poor. As Nelson Mandela once observed: “[I]f you talk to [a man] in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Ask yourself this question: in what language do I dream? In my mother tongue, of course. Now ask yourself what would be the significance of the answer to this umbuzo (question)? You think best in a language that you know best. You should be taught in a language that you understand, allowing for cognition to take place easily. This is one side of the coin that we still miss in South Africa. We need to teach in African languages and teach effective English as a subject. It is not a question of choosing English only.
Not only should you be taught in your dream language but you should also take the initiative to learn other languages. Linguistic activists have been saying this for years.
In the process the mind is broadened and the barriers between linguistic and cultural groups are broken down. You step into the cultural and linguistic space of another human friend. Language is what drives culture and forms its central underpinnings: who are we and who am I if I remain my singular, monolingual, (un)comfortable self?
Now, what do we do in South Africa? We insist that the majority of our students are educated in a language that they often do not understand well. The result: global-language idiots are what we have become!
We don’t teach African languages or English with any measure of competency. Furthermore, we insist that those who were privileged under apartheid remain privileged today — in other words, it is those who speak English and, to some extent, Afrikaans who are allowed to be taught in their mother tongues. What gives them this right?
They are also not required to learn another African language. This just does not make sense in a country in which professional services are largely delivered in English, even though arguably not even 40% of the population is functionally literate in this non-indigenous, ex-colonial language.
Imagine someone telling you to take three tablets five times per day in a language that you cannot understand.
And if we believe we should be using English for economic reasons, then should we not all be rushing to learn Mandarin, considering the new economic order in Africa?
Each university is supposed to have its own language policy and all universities should now be in the process of implementing such policies. According to research conducted by my colleague, Dr Pam Maseko, this is largely not happening. Some universities do not even have a language policy.
With the support of management, including vice-chancellor Dr Saleem Badat, Rhodes University is ahead of the pack. It already offers isiXhosa vocation-specific courses in disciplines related to delivery of services. There are now courses such as isiXhosa for pharmacy, law and education – and these form part of the curriculum.
All education students who do not have isiXhosa as a mother tongue are required to learn isiXhosa. We will soon pilot a course in isiXhosa for psychology. An isiXhosa journalism course (both second language and mother tongue) is being offered this year. In addition to the hundreds of undergraduates studying isiXhosa at Rhodes, there are 41 honours students, 20 master’s and six PhD students, thanks to bursary funding from the national department of arts and culture.
It is true, too, that African-language teaching and learning should not only be developed at second-language level. There is a serious need to allow mother-tongue speakers enough information to make informed decisions concerning the virtues of being taught in, and the value of learning, their mother tongues.
Market-related courses such as isiXhosa for journalism are important if qualified mother-tongue journalists are to provide their services to radio stations such as Umhlobo Wenene and newspapers such as the isiZulu Isolezwe paper. Likewise, it is important for a journalist who does not speak an African language to learn such a language to gain more accurate information and be more culturally sensitive.
Nzimande, therefore, is quite correct. The only point of difference that I would have is that such vocation-specific African language courses must be taught rather than “should” or “could”.
Vocation-specific, market-related African language mother-tongue and second-language courses must form part of the curriculum at universities.
In my view African languages hold the key to the Africanisation of the curriculum, which must be an integral part of transformation at universities.
Students need to learn African languages to enable them to function as better multilingual citizens in the workplace. That is just common sense.
We have found at Rhodes that students generally come to take a very positive view. As pharmacy students, for example, begin to work with patients who are not necessarily conversant in English, they see the benefits.
The argument that is sometimes used against learning an African language is: “Why must I learn this language if I am not going to work among Xhosa people?” The answer is simple: “You will be working among them for the years that you will be studying at Rhodes.”
In a country where we remain obsessed with race, multilingualism will go a long way towards creating a measure of social cohesion. Can you imagine if all South Africans were fluent in English, Afrikaans, an Nguni language and a Sotho language? We would all be better citizens.
For so long now black people have had to grapple with learning the white people’s English. Nzimande was correct when he observed, in isiZulu, that “we can’t be expected to learn English and Afrikaans, yet they don’t learn our languages”.
As a multilingual mlungu, I can only wait for the day when I am not continually asked: “So where did you learn that Khoza language?” I wonder when last I asked a black person: “So where did you learn English?” If I had never spoken isiXhosa, I would not be the South African that I am today.
Oh, if only we lived in a society where we could thetha, praat, khuluma, talk in one another’s languages, even code-switch and mix them together and camtha if need be.
Then we could begin to build a basis for a trusting, communicative nation, a trust based on effective communication and cultural sharing that I believe still eludes us today.
Russell H Kaschula is professor and head of African language studies at Rhodes University’s school of languages