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Opinion - Revitalisation of endangered indigenous languages

2020-11-02  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Revitalisation of endangered indigenous languages

Namibia, despite its scant population, is home to a wide variety of cultures and diverse people who speak varied languages, from multiple language families: Indo-European, Bantu, and the several Khoe Khoe families. While some indigenous languages are included in the school syllabus at primary level, English is the medium of instruction from secondary level. 
Afrikaans is the only language that comes close to a lingua franca and is spoken by most local people together with English and their native language. The emphasis on English to the detriment of other local languages has created a situation wherein the indigenous languages are fighting for their very survival. 

The sheer multiplicity of languages and the low population can lead to the death of languages which is possible in two ways (Fredericks, 2015): One is the demise of the speakers of the language and two, is the language shift that takes place because of environmental factors and the emphasis that is given to the official language, that is English.

Although speakers of such minority languages have a deep attachment to their cultural identity and history embedded in their language, the language itself proves unsustainable for economic reasons. Therefore, it is essential to bring about a revitalization of indigenous languages for the preservation of culture. Further, it is imperative that cultural practices are recorded in the local languages both for preservation and promotion.

The Juba Language in Education conference was organized by British Council in March 2012 to develop general principles for the integration of African languages and culture into the education system, which were then adopted by ministers of education from 18 African countries. The principles emphasized the following main aspects: first, linguistic equity so that all languages are protected, respected and developed; second, African languages to be used in partnership with international languages; and, finally, effective teaching with a social and culturally relevant curriculum as the most important element of quality education to be implemented in all African countries. While Namibia was a signatory to the decisions taken at the conference, funding constraints, being a large country with a small population, lack of teaching and learning materials, untrained or poorly trained teachers are several factors that have impacted the full and complete implementation of the language policy on the ground.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stresses that the concept of human rights is bound closely to the belief that culture is central to our identity. Languages are repositories of culture and linguistic diversity, which typifies many African states, is an important element of cultural diversity. 

Namibia has adopted the Unesco 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Unesco 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The Namibian Arts and Culture Policy is using these conventions as a framework for implementation. The impact of globalisation and information technologies could lead to the possible extinction or impairment to cultural expressions.

 Consequent recommendation is needed for relevant actions that will ensure adequate protection and promotion of cultural expressions, identities and subsequently, human rights. 
It is for this reason that a research team from Namibia University of Science and Technology has embarked on the P3ICL project to protect, preserve and promote indigenous culture and languages through funding received from the European Union to revitalize the following endangered languages: Oluzemba, !Kung and Sifwe languages. It must also be noted that Unesco avowed 2019 as the year of indigenous languages and has announced that 2020 to 2030 will be the Decade of Indigenous Languages.   
*Prof Sarala Krishnamurthy is a researcher in the Faculty of Human Sciences at NUST. The views and opinions expressed herein are purely her own.

2020-11-02  Staff Reporter

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