Home Opinion and Features Language is not status

Language is not status


At some point one must see language as a tool for communication rather than one of dominance or exclusion

Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/ANA

I was pleasantly surprised to see an advert for a position where one of the requirements was fluency in English. We have had a surfeit of BEE (add on as many e’s as you are comfortable with) since we achieved our fragile democracy.

Legislation that opened previously white-dominant positions to speakers of African languages was a step in the right direction. All we had to do was apply a rational numerical equivalence and all would be well.

But this legislation reinforced the threatening reverse apartheid that now befouls our political ozone in addition to the stench of moral and fiscal decay.

The reduced requirement for educational accreditation only aggravates the situation.

The empowerment of the black sector is not accompanied by encouragement to learn the basics from and through the speakers of non-African languages.

Learning the trade through English or Afrikaans (or other viable alternatives like French or Portuguese) is seen as a perpetuation of colonialism.

Yet we now find droves of South Africans going to study in China.

And the first requirement?

Mandatory acquisition of the mare’s-nest called Chinese or Mandarin.

Allow me an aside here.

The English (colonial) language is structured using fewer than 30 letters.

The Chinese alphabet has over 2000!

And African languages?

The written language is encrypted in phonemes from the colonial language.

One then has to make an informed choice as to the arena in which language features as a requirement for improved knowledge acquisition and the improved service delivery and living standards that follow.

The nature of language makes it a political issue.

It is an essential part of nationhood, identity and empowerment. At some stage one must see language as a tool for communication rather than one of dominance or exclusion.

A lot of racial friction is caused by assigning the wrong role to language.

If a black man acquires the academic accreditation to teach maths, that is a matter of pride. But we mustn’t close our eyes and ears to the fact that there will be problems if he doesn’t teach in his native language.

I mooted this point early in my career as a newspaper columnist. Mispronunciation is one of the gremlins of code-switching.

We hear “leave” when the speaker means “live”. We hear “duck” when the speaker means “dark”.

These observations are not racial slurs.

The same is true of a Russian who teaches through a medium other than his native tongue.

But in cases like that, the foreign accent is “sexy” and “mysterious” and “attractive”.

Perhaps we should drop the phobia about English and Afrikaans and get on with universal empowerment instead of preserving an identity that islimiting in the field of opportunities out there.