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Opinion: Dissecting Namibia’s linguistic dilemma

2021-08-02  Staff Reporter

Opinion: Dissecting Namibia’s linguistic dilemma

Namibia like much of Africa is a multilingual/multicultural nation.  According to some estimates, over 30 languages/dialects are spoken in the country. 

With English being the sole official language of the state, Afrikaans being a semi lingua franca in mostly central, coastal and southern regions and Oshiwambo, the widely spoken first language in the country. 

Article 3 and 19 of the constitution recognise the right to language in the country, so are major international human rights instruments. Chief among them is article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Namibia is a state party. 

The importance of language to humanity cannot be underestimated. Fishman (1996) states, language is the mind, spirit, and soul of a people. Every effort must be made to protect, preserve, promote, and practice our indigenous/aboriginal languages.  Supplementing Fishman’s position, Fanon (1967) submits: To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.

There have been debates in the local scholarly circles about the need to develop or opt for one indigenous African language to serve as the country’s lingua franca.  As it stands, Namibia is among a few African countries, especially in the SADC region that has no indigenous African language which serves as a lingua franca. 

While this is not the case in the region. For example, Botswana has Setswana, Zimbabwe- Shona, Malawi and Zambia-Nyanja/Chewa, South Africa-Isizulu, Lesotho-Sesotho, Eswatini-Siswati, Madagascar-Malagasy, Tanzania-Kiswahili etc. 

 On the other hand, some scholars argue for a multilingual approach akin to that of Switzerland. They posit that Namibia’s history of apartheid has made it difficult to formally adopt a single unifying African language. They also argue that there’s a possibility that such a language may not be universally accepted by all ethnic groups. Two local languages have in the previous years been proposed to serve as national lingua francas. 

 Prior to independence, Oshiwambo, especially the Oshikwanyama dialect was touted as a potential sole national language with African characteristics. It was argued then that Oshikwanyama was an easy choice for this role as it was the language of inter-ethnic communication during the country’s liberation struggle. 

On the other hand, prominent academics such as Diescho (2014) posits that Otjiherero be made the sole indigenous lingua franca of the country. He submits that Otjiherero is a real Bantu language which at the moment is not a language of the majority tribe or ethnic group in the country and thus does not suffer the stigma of language of domination.

 Now the question arises, will non-Bantu speaking groups such as Khoisan language speakers accept this arrangement? Already, Bantu and European languages are blamed for decimating Khoisan languages in neighbouring South Africa.

Another linguistic dilemma facing the nation relates to the plight of indigenous languages not yet recognised by the state. At present, besides the English language, the country’s outdated National Language Policy of 1981 recognises only eight national languages viz Afrikaans, Damara/Nama, German, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Rukavango, Setswana and Silozi. 

However, there have been calls from other ethnic minorities to have their languages recognised, taught at school and used on national radio as well. These calls are more prominent in Namibia’s Zambezi region where three out of four chiefs have called upon the government to allow their languages to be taught at schools as well as to be allowed on national radio. 

To this effect, the Mayeyi and Masubia ethnic groups are currently developing orthographies for their respective languages and are lobbying government to accord them the same status as Silozi-the region’s lingua franca. While Banyemba in the Kavango are agitating for their language to be taught in local schools as well.

 Importantly, from 2022, neighbouring Botswana will expand its national language policy to include almost all of its minority languages, including those spoken in Namibia such as Subia, Yeyi, Otjiherero and Thimbukushu. Although Otjiherero and Thimbukushu are already taught in Namibian schools, the question then arises, will the government now accommodate Siyeyi and Chisubia since orthographies of the two languages have already been developed by Botswana? 

Last but not least, another contentious issue in relation to language rights in Namibia relates to mother tongue instruction. A lot has been written on the importance of mother tongue instructions. According to Emananjo (1990), learning using the mother tongue is better facilitated. 

Easier and better understanding leading to higher retention rates occur when mother tongue language is used in learning and teaching. Other benefits include heightened confidence and interests of the learner as learning in school is seen as a continuum of some of the home activities. 

Diescho (2014) takes a balancing view on the use of mother tongue instructions in Namibian schools. He posits: Our colonial experience taught us that white people assume that their home languages are the ones in which their children must be taught at school. History has been kind to them not to have to fight about this as African language speakers have to. 

Few white families would dream of putting their children in schools that offer education through anything but their languages, or something close to their language in what they rather consider an international environment. Here the child still has full-time access to his/her home language. At school, they are taught in another language. This is the origin of bilingual education.

Another question therefore arises, how do you implement a mother tongue policy in a linguistically diverse city such as Windhoek? How do you accommodate learners from numerically inferior groups? These are kinds of questions that language experts in government should deal with when applying the language policy for schools. 

In light of what I posited above, I am of the opinion that solutions be advanced to answer Namibia’s language question. I argue that key stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, the Namibia University of Science and Technology, the Namibia Institute of Educational Development convene an “indaba” to address all the concerns raised by citizens on language rights.

 I also recommend that the outdated National Language Policy of 1981 be “modernised” and a specific law other than constitutional provisions be enacted to protect and promote all of Namibia’s indigenous languages. Crucially, a language regulatory board modelled along the line of Tanzania’s BAKITA (National Kiswahili Council) or South Africa’s Pan Salb (Pan South African Language Board) be established to monitor the equal use of all of Namibia’s indigenous languages.

2021-08-02  Staff Reporter

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