Language planning in south africa

7 July 2016

Language policy and planning in South Africa must be seen within the context of the country’s sociolinguistic complexity and the relationship between language and a number of serious problems in the country. South Africa’s sociolinguistic complexity is a function of a number of factors: 1) a multiplicity of languages and cultures; 2) the overlapping demographical and geographical distribution of the country’s major languages; and 3) the politicization of these languages and cultures due to both the colonial past and the policy of apartheid, and the differentiated linguistic manifestation of their politicization (Webb,1994).

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world, and the only country in Africa, which has seen, during the 20th Century, the development of a language from one which had no governmental recognition, and existed largely in spoken form, to one in which substantial parts of the government, the national economy, and higher education were run. The population of South Africa is not only multiracial but it is also multilingual. It is estimated that about 25 languages are spoken within South Africa’s borders (Mesthrei, 2006).

Language planning in south africa Essay Example

Historical Background In 1924, Afrikaans, a relatively new, hybridized language in use for only about eight years at the time, became one of the official languages of South Africa. Prior to 1924, English was the only official language in South Africa. In 1948, the infamous policy of apartheid became the law of the land in South Africa (De Kadt, 2006). The apartheid ideology called for the division of South Africa’s people according to their racial/ ethnic group affiliation and geographic residence.

As South Africans were increasingly and systematically separated from each other, the apartheid-based idea of nationalism based on language was also promoted. By stressing language and cultural differences among the nation’s Black population, which includes members of African ethnic groups, persons of mixed race (Coloreds), and immigrants from India, and physically segregating them on the basis of race/ethnicity, the apartheid regime encouraged tribalism and petty factional conflicts.

Prior to the 1994 elections, the language of instruction in South Africa’s schools for English, Afrikaner, Colored, and Indian students was either English or Afrikaans (the two former official languages), with the other official language studied as a subject. African students, however, were instructed in their “home” or ethnic African languages for the first four years and then allowed to switch to either English or Afrikaans. Of the two, English was almost always the preferred language. In 1976, the South African government passed a ruling to make Afrikaans the second language of instruction in the African schools (De Kadt, 2006).

Seventy years after the language of Afrikaans was first granted official status (in 1924), South Africa set off on another unique linguistic journey. This time, in 1994, the country became the location of an effort to develop, simultaneously, nine indigenous African languages, granting all nine, along with English and Afrikaans, equal status (that is, official language status) and proclaiming that education and governmental documentation would be available in all. Those nine indigenous languages include Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, South Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Ndebele.

These were chosen because the majority of South Africans, probably more than 98%, use one of these languages as their home language or first language. Currently, English is the most visible and audible language at governmental functions, political rallies, administration, and the upper echelons of business and education. On the other hand, Afrikaans and African languages are very much alive on individual radio stations, in music, some newspapers (chiefly Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa), primary education, and, to a lesser extent, on television (Mesthrei, 2006).

I feel that the policy of making 9 languages the official languages of South Africa would progress very slowly as it is faced by several issues. Firstly, the cost and complexity of developing nine languages at once far outscales the costs and difficulties faced by the government in 1924 when making Afrikaans one of the official languages. For example, translation of all the government documents, forms and circulars to 11 official languages is an enormous burden that can barely be carried. Also, there is a great difference between the case of Afrikaans and that of the 9 indigenous languages.

The political pressures on the government were very different between both cases. In the historical case (of Afrikaans), the governmental recognition of the language was driven by the existence of a politically significant language community. Whereas, in case of the 9 indigenous languages, it was driven by a demand for equality rather than a demand for language development. The political insignificance of these language communities, I believe, is what inhibits the development of the 9 indigenous languages to the level of English and Afrikaans.

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