​Roll out the red carpet for SA’s indigenous languages

Earlier this year in Paris, Unesco hosted the official global launch of 2019 as the ‘Year of Indigenous Languages’. More than 7 000 languages are spoken around the world, though only 4% of these are spoken by 97% of the world’s population. Many of the smaller languages are on track for extinction, with some already recognised by the United Nations as critically endangered.

Every two weeks another language disappears, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. As languages disappear, so too does the richness of their cultural groups.

Forty percent of the world’s population does not get taught in a language they speak or understand. Although English dominates the global stage, in South Africa fewer than 10% of the population speak it as their mother tongue. Towering above English as a spoken language are isiXhosa, isiZulu and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans.

That doesn’t mean that our African languages are safe. One language facing extinction is Nluu (or N||ng), a San language spoken in the Northern Cape and considered to be one of the original languages of Southern Africa. Today, only a handful of fluent Nluu speakers survive to tell its tale. And what will happen to our other small languages, such as !Xun, Birwa and Khwe?

Although English may not be the de facto talk of the town in South Africa, in written form it continues to dwarf others. This is problematic in the education space. Think about the fact that the majority of children who speak an African language at home switch to English as their primary language of learning in grade 4.


Consider too that when the critical foundations for learning — including literacy development — are being laid, only 6% of children’s storybooks are produced in isiZulu (mother tongue to 22.7% of the population), and 40% are produced in English (home language to 9.6%).

Research from all over the world tells us that when children learn to read in a language they understand, they are far more likely to have fulfilling academic careers and are better positioned to make a dignified contribution to society.

Our Constitution stipulates: “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.” An audacious goal given our nation’s rich linguistic diversity. Can we say that enough has been done to try to fulfil this promise?

Says author and sociology professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah: “It was an enormous milestone to achieve an end to the apartheid era, but how we move forward in the efforts to consolidate democracy, human rights, economic and social justice and a level playing field in all respects for all members of the citizenry will depend greatly on how these linguistic challenges are addressed.”

With 78% of children unable to read for meaning in grade 4 and 40% matriculating, what will our country look like in five to 10 years?

It’s for these reasons that the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign is working hard to roll out the red carpet for some of our indigenous languages. The campaign promotes the use of African languages in reading, writing and storytelling. Last year, we helped to create opportunities for nearly 130 000 children to fall in love with books and stories, in their own languages, through a network of partner reading clubs.

Jade Jacobsohn is the managing director at Nal’ibali. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, how to sign up as a FUNda Leader and to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit nalibali.org and nalibali.mobi or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn Jacobsohn is the managing director at Nal’ibali. She is a seasoned anthropologist with research experience in South Africa, Uganda and Malawi, and has a solid grassroots background in the Eastern Cape as founder and Programme Manager of the Sophakama Community Partnership. She has managed various educational projects, specifically focused on early childhood development and environmental education within economically deprived areas, and has worked closely with Anglo American, Takalani Sesame and Food for Development. Her academic qualifications include a BSocSci (Hons) in Anthropology and Environmental Science from Rhodes University, and an MSc in Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London.

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