The language debate – Are languages treated equally in South Africa?

“Afrikaans belongs to everyone. It existed before the notion of the Afrikaner and it will exist after Afrikaners. Hopefully, by then, we’ll be talking about everything BUT Afrikaans in Afrikaans.” – Marianne Thamm (The language debate: Let’s talk about everything else ... in Afrikaans)

The Africa in Afrikaans

Afrikaans, as a language, existed long before the idea of an Afrikaner nation was conjured. It was the slaves in the kitchens of Dutch settlers who developed it and the first known writings in this “kitchen Dutch” were in Arabic script and written in the 1830s. A movement to create Afrikaans as a “volkstaal” began in 1896 with the first Afrikaans Taal Congress that took place in Paarl (where the Taal Monument (Language Monument) is situated today).

Afrikaans only became an official “language” in 1925 and its founders, in an attempt to remove traces of its “creole” roots and origin, attempted to have it viewed as a Germanic language, labelling it Afrikaans-Nederlands.

JC Kannemeyer, an authority of Afrikaans literature, in his Die Afrikaanse Literatuur 1652 – 2004 writes, “In Kaapstad is Afrikaans hoofsaaklik deur die gekleurde bevolking gebruik” (In the Cape, Afrikaans was largely used by the coloured population).

In a PRAESA occasional paper titled The Rise and Possible Demise of Afrikaans as a Public Language, Prof. Hermann Giliomee wrote, “By the 1930s there were fewer than two million people who spoke Afrikaans as a first language. Yet the language would achieve something exceptional. Heinz Kloss observed in 1977: ‘Unless we consider Arabic an African tongue... Afrikaans is the only non-European/non-Asiatic language to have attained full university status and to be used in all branches of life and learning ... All other university languages have their main basis in either Europe or Asia.’ He added: ‘There is a strong likelihood that of the new university languages outside Europe (new ones as against old ones such as Japanese, Arabic or Chinese) only Hindi, used by some 250 million speakers, Indonesian by 100 million speakers, and Hebrew match the development of Afrikaans.’” Giliomee continues to cite Jean Laponce, author of Languages and Territories who remarked that Afrikaans, Hindi, Indonesian, and Hebrew “are possibly the only languages that in the course of the twentieth century were standardised and came to be used in all branches of life and learning, including in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, and in science and technology”.

In an article in The Citizen the writer, Tsholofelo Wesi, asks whether Afrikaans will and should be reclaimed by its Coloured speakers.

Alana Bailey of AfriForum told The Citizen: “Afrikaans, like any modern language, is the language of many speakers and communities and we should all embrace and claim and build it. It was, after a created by people from three different continents. Every community brings its own knowledge systems and expressions and culture to it, and adds to the layers and richness of Afrikaans. It is not the exclusive property of any community or race.

“It is necessary to have a standardised version for general use, like for administrative, academic and official purposes, but dialects should also be recognised and used in other spheres,” she said.

“I have spoken to a lot of kids who speak one variety of Afrikaans at home and another at school. This confuses them – is there a “wrong” and a “right” Afrikaans, they ask? They should be aware of appreciation for their dialects.

“Fortunately there are more and more inspiring authors and musicians who act as role-models for them. In this regard Adam Smalls and Taliep Petersen are legends, but there are many younger artists following in their footsteps.”

Poet Blaq Pearl. Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 Cheslyn Abrahams

“Historically, it has been acknowledged that coloured people were integral to the creation of creole language that mixed Dutch, Malay languages and African languages which came to be known as Afrikaans. Today, coloured people, together with black and Asian people, comprise the majority of the language’s mother-tongue speakers.”

“Afrikaaps, a 2012 documentary directed by SABC commissioning editor Dylan Valley, looks at the issue in depth, and features singer and poet Blaq Pearl (aka Janine van Rooy), with the play, also titled Afrikaaps, as the background story.”

“In the Afrikaaps documentary, the crew visits Lavender Hill High School in Cape Town to speak to learners, who are mostly coloured and speak the Cape Afrikaans variety.

“One learner says: “It’s almost like some people think it’s a bastard Afrikaans. Pure Afrikaans is at the top, and Cape Afrikaans is at the bottom.”

“Another learner gave a possible job interview scenario where his Cape Afrikaans dialect potentially gives the impression that “he’s a gangster”, regardless of whether he has a degree or how intelligent he is, and is in effect kept out of the job market by linguistic prejudice.

“After the school learner see the Afrikaaps play, which celebrates the dialect and its history, the learners are thrilled by the experience. The first learner says: “I won’t be shy to speak the way I do anymore. I won’t compromise on my language for other people.” Watch the full documentary here.

Afrikaans – a model for the development of other languages

From a language planning and policy point of view, Afrikaans has been hailed as a model for the development of other languages. It must be acknowledged that, at least at a macro language planning level, the success of language planning is largely a top-down affair since it is driven by governments and legislation, and in that sense Afrikaans had the full backing of the pre-1994 government. However, having said this, Afrikaans provides a significant example of how to develop a language to its fullest extent, both internally and externally, and at a macro and micro level. Developing a language to its fullest extent includes corpus planning (the internal development of the language through grammar, lexicon, etc.), and external development of a language through status planning (the social role of a language, particularly in respect to the government and its institutions), and prestige planning (the degree of esteem and social value attached to a language by members of a speech community). At a macro level Afrikaans was therefore developed to a fully-fledged language for use at government level, and at a micro level, the language was actively developed and promoted for use in the business sector, and in the education sector as a fully-developed academic language up to tertiary level.

Where do we stand with Afrikaans

Language policies at school level, as well as tertiary institutions, have become the subject of controversy and intense debate.

The language debate – an interview with Jack Parow (Afrikaans musician) and Dr. Danny Titus (ATKV)

Alongside this discourse in the education sector it is also important to note that within the Afrikaans community there are two camps:

  • those who lay exclusive claim to it - language activists who feel threatened and proclaim that the language in its standard form is under siege
  • those who believe the language with its diverse cultures, dialects and variants can continue to thrive in all its forms, alongside all South African local languages.

Afrikaans – language of instruction at tertiary institutions

There is a fierce debate about the language of instruction at tertiary institutions, particularly those who have a long established history as serving predominantly students of Afrikaans origin. For instance, Stellenbosch University students protested throughout 2015 against the use of Afrikaans as the institution’s main language. This culminated in the university management deciding to adopt English as its primary language of instruction.

Prof. Wannie Carstens, Chair of the Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (Afrikaans Academy for Science and Art), made a considered argument with regard to finding a solution to various issues pertaining to Afrikaans, particularly as a language of instruction at traditionally Afrikaans universities. Carstens argued that a solution should be found for multilingualism on the country’s campuses. “We must know beforehand that the only solution for Afrikaans (and African languages) lies within a multicultural context” and also that “Afrikaans and race must not become entwined…”

In an edited version of an article* written by Hein Willemse, Professor of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria, Willemse speaks about the controversy over the medium of instruction at traditionally Afrikaans universities and how this has raised the question whether it “should be in Afrikaans, English, a combination, or a hybrid which will include other South African languages”.

Willemse states: “The institution has to find ways to continue to advance Afrikaans without the perceptions and experiences of racist behaviour associated with early and ruling Afrikaner nationalist practices. It’s essential to consider the current status of Afrikaans, as well as its history.

“Many South Africans of every hue have contributed to the language’s formation and development. Afrikaans also has a “black history” rather than just the known hegemonic apartheid history inculcated by white Afrikaner Christian national education, propaganda and the media.

“Afrikaans has a multifaceted nature, numerically dominated by its black speakers. Rather than viewing Afrikaans through a single lens it is today acknowledged as an amalgam consisting of a variety of expressions, speakers and histories. It’s in this spirit that the debate on the medium of instruction at universities such as Stellenbosch has to be conducted.”

*This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here

Also read: The hidden histories of Afrikaans by Hein Willemse as published in Mistra.

Views in favour of Afrikaans as a language of instruction:

  • Afrikaans is a fully-fledged standard language and an asset for South Africa.
  • Afrikaans speakers in South Africa make up a significant part of the South African population and have a constitutional right to be taught in an official language or languages of their choice in public education institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.
  • As Afrikaans has a standard variant that is a carrier of culture, Afrikaans speakers have a constitutional right to use the language of their choice and to participate in the cultural life of their own choice, provided that they comply with any provision of the Bill of Rights.
  • Mother-tongue education is the proven best medium of teaching and learning, and there is no reason why Afrikaans cannot fulfil that role.
  • If the high-level use of Afrikaans is scaled down further, there is little hope that the other indigenous languages will make significant progress.

Views against Afrikaans tertiary education:

  • Afrikaans as the medium of instruction would exclude students and lecturers who do not understand Afrikaans.
  • English would be the lingua franca of South Africa, and therefore it makes sense to run higher education institutions in English.
  • Teaching in English prepares students better for their professional life in South Africa and the world.
  • Afrikaans must be ‘freed’ - exactly from ‘what’ is unclear. It presumably means that the language as such is equated with the policies of previous colonial and apartheid governments.
  • Afrikaans is the language of the oppressor and therefore does not deserve to be preserved.

Dr Danie FM Strauss, a Research Fellow at the School of Philosophy, North West University, makes the case for Afrikaans, cautioning against what he called “lingual cleansing”. Read his article here.

The other side

Mercy Kannemeyer, an honours drama student at Stellenbosch University, made a 12-minute documentary (Die ander kant) about what stands to be lost if Afrikaans was finally abolished as a tertiary language of instruction. It includes discussions with experts and students; like Helen Zille, Willa Boezak, Rhoda Kadalie, Wim de Villiers and Abraham Phillips.

Mother-tongue education – what you should know

According to the 2011 census, Afrikaans is the third most spoken language in South Africa. It is spoken by about 13.5% of South Africans of ALL races – after Zulu (22.7%) and Xhosa (16.0%). There are seven million (m) mother-tongue Afrikaans speaking people of which 60% (4.2m) are non-white.

Research from around the world has shown that it takes more than three years to fully learn a language and that it’s best for children to learn in their mother language for the first six years at school. Ideally, English should be presented as an additional language during this stage - gradually introduced as a co-teaching medium. This gives children the best of both worlds. “If a learner cannot really understand the language of instruction, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the content of the subject. Often children simply just learn things by rote with little or no comprehension.”

In addressing the challenges of finding a balance between mother tongue and standard English education, Carol Bloch from Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa argues that “unless conditions are appropriate, it is very difficult to learn a foreign language well enough to learn through it.” Read the article here.

Why should we care about a language?

The late Kenneth Hale, who taught linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), put it passionately: “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on a museum.”

The disappearance of a few, or even many, languages will not threaten the survival of the human race. But that does not mean it is unimportant. A 2003 UNESCO paper, Language Vitality and Endangerment, summed up the reasons why people should care:

“The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world... Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory, and the maintenance of the world's diverse ecosystems. Above all, speakers of these languages may experience the loss of their language as a loss of their original ethnic and cultural identity.” Read more ...

While a lot has changed in South Africa since 1994, there’s still a long way to go for languages to be treated equally. Beyond preserving African languages, the language debate is, at its core, about fairness and creating a level playing field. Although it’s clear that Afrikaans belongs to all South Africans the language still wrestles with its history ...

Read more:

About Afrikaans.

The unique language of Afrikaans.

About the Afrikaans language.