#40YearsLater: The Language Debate
It’s been 40 years since the events of the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976. While a lot has changed in the South African education system in terms of access and quality, there’s still a long distance for languages to be treated equally. Systematically, indigenous South African languages are at a disadvantage because English and Afrikaans have had years to build structures to support the claims that they are the easiest languages of instruction.
Currently at a large number of learning institutions, the treatment Afrikaans-speaking students have consistently received within the education system has put them at an advantage. Afrikaans-speaking students can go from foundation phase to graduating (even with doctorate) without needing to deviate from their home language. No other students – other than those of English heritage – are granted that privilege. Beyond preserving African languages, the language debate is, at its core, about fairness and creating a level playing field.
While the disparities are clear for all to see, there is another school of thought that believes speaking to your child in their home language and teaching them the nuances and intricacies of Setswana, Tshivenda or isiNdebele will derail their education and put them at a disadvantage at school affect a child’s development and sense of self.
Many students who attended “model c” schools live with the legacy of being unrepresented when it comes to language. For many it was against the school’s code of conduct to use a language other than English. Even at break among friends. Eventually the vicious cycle of treating the use of African languages as deviant and unprofessional ends up in the work place where, yet again, it’s against company culture to use your languages because others may feel left out of conversations.
This then brings the debate to new other level, why don’t more South Africans know more South African languages in 2016? Why isn’t it a point of pride for all South Africans – across races – to be able to hold a conversation and share in the memes in African languages? Is there an access barrier for those who are not native speakers of South African languages or is it simply a matter of disregard and lack of interest?
In a bold move, the Gauteng department of education announced, yet again, that it’s going to be implementing a new language policy that requires every grade one pupils to take an African language as a second additional language in 2017. The province had previously made the announcement in 2014 and it seems policies and resources are now in place. The Gauteng department of education seems determined to decolonise how teaching occurs and curb language from being a barrier to accessing education.
Will this mean it will soon be safe and expected again for black students to continue using their languages at home instead of “practicing their English?” Time will tell but surely it’s in the society’s interest for the next generation to learn as many languages as they can as well as to have the option to be taught in an African language – their own or not – in their early education.
How do you treat language in your home and in your child’s education?
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Kaya FM.