Implementing language policies in Southern Africa: A daunting task (Part 1)
The local press was recently awash with the news that the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture in Namibia wants to introduce a new language policy in schools. If legislators approve this language policy, it will compel primary schools to use the mother language as a medium of instruction from Grade 1 to Grade 3. Although this is a commendable move, but is not without challenges.
At the attainment of independence, most African governments adopted the coloniser’s foreign languages as the official languages to be used in business, the judiciary, education, local government and parliament. The examples of foreign languages that have dominated local languages in Africa are English, French and Portuguese. I argue that indigenous languages in Southern Africa, which is the focus of this article, have low variety status vis-à-vis foreign languages mainly due to a variety of reasons, the major being the challenges faced in the implementation of the language policies in these countries.
While in my survey I found out there are language policies in the countries studied, it can be concluded that having a language policy in place is not congruent to the implementation and the desired effects thereof. In the second and last segment of this article, I recommend the Tanzanian language policy model that formalised Swahili as a national language for all purposes. To all intents and purposes, the Swahili model has been a resounding success.
For the past decades, conferences have been held on issues surrounding the statuses of African languages, not only in Southern Africa, but in Africa as a whole. One can cite, as examples, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Conference on Language Policies in Africa which was held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1997; the African Conference on the Integration of African Languages and Cultures into Education which was held in 2010 in Ougadougou, Berkina Faso; the Cape Town Language and Development conference held in South Africa in 2015; and the African Languages Association of Southern Africa (ALASA) conference held at the Namibia University of Science and Technology at the end of June in 2016.
Imagining these and other deliberations and efforts on the African-languages question as battles, the major question I attempt to answer is: are linguists and language practitioners with a keen interest in the preservation of African autochthonous languages losing the war? Based on critical analyses of works on the language policies of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, I discuss a number of challenges that affect the implementation of language policies in these countries.
The major challenges the diglossic situations which perpetuate the supremacy of the language of the colonisers at the expense of indigenous African languages; the neo-colonial elites who promote languages like English, French and Portuguese as languages that buttress their power, in most cases paying lip-service to the promotion of indigenous languages; the absence of strict monitoring of the implementation of language policies in domains like primary, secondary and tertiary education, and training; the lack of support for the development of African languages from the private sector; the lack of interest in promoting the use of languages of minority groups which are faced with extinction; and the conundrum multilingual communities face in determining which indigenous languages have to be to officialised as national languages and/or ‘standard’ languages. Although the task seems to be insurmountable, linguists, language practitioners and other concerned entities, have to step up the fight for our African languages which are the vehicles of our cultural identities, heritages and indigenous knowledge systems. In this fight, we need to respect multilingualism and linguistic diversity, guided by the fact that there is no language that is more linguistically superior to the other.
As a point of departure, I note that the indigenous languages studied actually play second fiddle to foreign languages. The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms defines the idiom ‘play second fiddle to’ as “take a subordinate role to someone or something.” Applied to the language question and language policies discussed here, one can conclude that indigenous African languages are given secondary roles in the SADC countries whose language policies were investigated. From the onset, let me categorically say that SADC linguists, language practitioners and researchers, and like-minded progressive forces should condemn situations in which indigenous African languages play secondary roles in our countries and that the situation should be redressed without further delay. In this spirit, I published two articles titled Development of indigenous languages needs strong support and Time for SADC to save indigenous African languages in the Windhoek Observer (2015, 2016) hoping to stimulate debate on this sensitive topic. To my utter dismay, no response came out of this effort, not even in the form of a letter to the editor. The absence of response suggested to me that either there is lack of interest in linguistic matters, or people did not understand language policy and planning in this country. Either way, fair enough, no blame.
Equally disturbing, the dearth of interest in local languages seems to be widespread. In the research for this article I ‘travelled’ and ‘sojourned’ in SADC countries, not physically (except in Namibia), but spiritually and intellectually. The spirited academic journey left my heart and mind in tatters as the cruellest facts about the situations of indigenous languages that had been taken for granted or glossed over hitherto were discovered.
The most painful thing that struck me was that the political elite in each of the countries studied have deliberately perpetuated the supremacy of foreign languages over indigenous languages. There is clear evidence which shows that language and power are closely related and in this case the foreign language that was used to subjugate the local people and their languages is the most preferred language by the new governments.
The socio-political environment created by the political elite has had a negative perception of the status of local languages against foreign language. In other words, the power that is exercised by the new rulers or elite is entrenched in the foreign language of the colonial master. To show how powerful a language is, Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich remarked: “A language is a dialect with an army and a foreign policy’’. This statement is sometimes quoted as “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
As I have already been stated above, the common denominator of most Sub-Saharan countries is the obvious choice of the former coloniser’s language and that power is entrenched in the coloniser’s language instead of indigenous languages. For example, according to Augusto of Angola, there is overwhelming evidence backed by statistics in Angola that shows that that although the official language the government chose at independence in 1975 was Portuguese, most Angolans living in non-urban areas did not speak or understand the language. The choice of Portuguese as the only official language and as the language of instruction in Angola was condemned by Fernandes and Ntondo who strongly argued that it was detrimental to the development of indigenous Bantu languages and Khoisan languages in the country. Similarly, the Mozambican language policy puts Portuguese as the official language showing a clear inheritance of the former coloniser’s language. Portuguese has the prestige of having been selected for all official functions, including education, while the indigenous languages have the status of local “minority” languages, thus playing little or no formal role at all in both countries.
English dominates as an official language in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia. Although English is the former coloniser’s language in other countries, it was not a former coloniser’s language in Namibia which used Afrikaans as an official language before independence. The choice of English as the official language offered a neutral lingua franca in a multilingual society in Namibia in which Afrikaans was viewed with suspicion by the new leadership mainly because it was the official language during the apartheid colonial rule.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo French dominates local languages like Kikongo, Lingala, Luba-Kasai and Congo Swahili. The DRC’s indigenous languages can be classified into three distinct types: the Bantoid, the Adamawa-Ubangian and the Central Sudanic groups.
In Mauritius and Seychelles French and English are the official languages despite the fact the majority speak Creole.
In sum, we see the perpetuation of a diglossic situation which treats foreign languages as High Varieties and indigenous languages as Low Varieties in education, the judiciary and government, and related spheres of the socio-economic and political contexts.
But what is diglossia? According to Wardhaugh, “Diglossia reinforces social distinctions. It is used to assert social position and to keep people in their place, particularly those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. Any move to extend the Low Variety . . . is likely to be perceived to be a direct threat to those who want to maintain traditional relationships and the existing power structure.”
So the diglossic situations created perpetuate the supremacy of the language of the coloniser or the foreign language. The inherited language enjoys the status of unifying and prestige in commonly multilingual societies typical of majority of African countries at the expense of indigenous languages. It is evident that diglossic situations were created during the colonial periods; diglossic situations were extended at independence and still exist today; diglossic situations will continue into the future unless something drastic is put in place by our governments to stop this colossal monster that will devour our languages and cultures.
Coupled with the above, some language policies are so vague and inconsistent that upon implementation they themselves create challenges that negatively affect the implementation process. For instance, Mauritius lacks clarity as no language is legally recognised as official or national but there is bias towards French and English at the expense of Kreol which is widely spoken. This vagueness leads to confusion and wide variation in languages of instruction across the country. In most Mauritian classrooms, a combination of Kreol, French, and English is used, though for different purposes. Zambia is ambiguous and Malawi is mixed up as children with different national languages background learn some subjects in multilingual contexts as the books are written in Chichewa and the teachers’ teaching guides are written in English. The policy is very silent about the language of assessment at these particular grades. Lesotho has its language policy labelled as ambiguous as the question of whose mother tongue the policy is referring to remains unanswered.
Some language policies in multilingual societies are blamed for promoting inequality as the chosen language is elevated to an official language thereby relegating other national and minority languages to lower rungs of the social ranking as noted in Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Societal norms have assigned roles to local languages as of low status while English or other colonisers’ languages are of the high status. In relation to this, Wright states that lax and non-interventionist policies promote the languages of power and prestige which will eventually take over in all situations of contact. (To be continued next week. A version of this article was published by Inkanyiso Journal)
*Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: email@example.com
2019-05-17 10:05:27 4 days ago