/ 24 August 2012

Surf the global tide in language and survive

Physical books are and may continue to be a preserve of the educated minority.
Physical books are and may continue to be a preserve of the educated minority.

South African literature, and especially fiction, faces many challenges, not least among them the low rates of reading in the general public, a steady decline in the sales of books and a younger generation increasingly attuned to the electronic media. Worldwide, printed books are apparently holding their own against e-books, but this cannot be expected to continue.

A love of physical books — their texture and feel, the way they smell — was perhaps always the preserve of an educated minority, but that minority is likely to dwindle even further with each passing year. I have noticed among my students less and less of what I would call a book-centred sensibility and an increasing shift towards, and facility with, various forms of digital media.

These trends are universal, but an additional problem South Africa faces is multilingualism. The country is by no means unique in this respect (one thinks of Nigeria and India, for example, with their many hundreds of commonly used languages), but, with only a small minority of South Africa’s population being active readers (14%, according to the South African Book Development Council), preserving and growing this small base, rather than further splintering it, is what is required.

Since the advent of democracy and the ensuing reorganisation of South Africa — economically, politically, socially and culturally — efforts have been made, and considerable amounts of money and infrastructure invested in promoting the ­languages of the country other than English and Afrikaans.

The outcomes of this process have by and large been disappointing. Whether measured in terms of the number of books published in African languages, or undergraduate or postgraduate degree enrolments in these languages, or their use as languages of instruction in formal secondary and tertiary settings, the returns on the investment in these initiatives have been poor.

There is a simple and irresistible reason for this. Short of some unforeseeable apocalypse, economic and cultural globalism will continue exponentially and this has lasting consequences for minority cultures and their languages. The latter may well remain locally viable for some time, certainly in their spoken, demotic form, but their speakers will have no choice but to adopt one of the major global languages to ensure their own economic survival and educational advancement.

Colonial influence
This is by no means a novelty of our own era. Languages and cultures down the centuries have become marginalised or extinct as a consequence of conquests and colonial influence. Spanish and Portuguese are now the lingua francas of the people of an entire continent that a mere 500 years ago spoke a multitude of indigenous languages. And the only likely development in this region in the future is that these Latinate tongues will increasingly be supplanted by a global form of ­English.

What, then, should be done about local literature? My suggestion is forthright: give up fighting pointless local battles that cannot be won and instead embark on a strategy that will be carried on the surging tide of global forces, rather than be swamped and eradicated by it.

Well intentioned though they are, initiatives to stop the erosion of the local languages are doomed to fail. If the country cannot sustain an education system that provides even the basics of a decent education to the majority of the population, it will certainly not have the resources and political will to invest heavily in preserving and promoting local ­languages.

The weight of authority seems to incline towards favouring mother-tongue instruction in the early grades. Thereafter, in the South African context at least, a switch to English is advisable. Whatever works best must be adopted as a matter of urgency. The only way the country will have a new generation of readers is if its education system is fixed.

But this is only half the battle in terms of the survival of local literature. The rest of it is against aliteracy and a “non-book” culture. Again, my suggestion is forthright: find means other than the traditional book to get young people to read.

My experience of them is that they are as engaged and interested in the world around them as any fore­going generation ever was; they must just be given reading material in a medium that appeals to them. They will not go out and buy a CD (let alone a vinyl LP), but they will listen to music — as avidly as any music-lover before them — by downloading it to their phones.

Closer to home (the printed word), I would wager that for every person under 30 who goes out and buys a newspaper there are more than a hundred who read the news online. The news is still being read, but it is being transmitted and received in radically different ways.

Flavour and nuance
It must be said that the lightweight, cheap but durable paperback is a remarkable piece of technology. It is portable, sharable and compact and requires no energy to drive it other than light by which to read it. So it is far from extinct. The expensive, large-format hardback is more of an endangered species and the multivolume dictionary or other reference work a dinosaur. All have been (or are being) eclipsed by various digital devices. Local publishers must find ways of harnessing this digital revolution.

What of the linguistic medium in which local literature (print or electronic) will be written and read? The broad flowing river will be English, but it will be nonstandard English and it will contain a myriad logs, stones and flecks of South Africa’s other languages. These admixtures will not be merely decorative: they will give local literature its rich characteristic flavour and nuance. They will be what makes it local.

Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg. He appears on the festival panel One Country, Many Literatures: Looking at South African Writing, chaired by Professor Michael Titlestad of Wits. The other panellist will be Professor Margaret Lenta of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It takes place on Saturday September 1, 11.30 am to 1 pm, at the Laager Theatre