Dr Isaac Mndawe, the Head of the Department of African Languages at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), argues that indigenous African languages are in danger of extinction.
Dr Mndawe penned an opinion article, Speak your mother language, or else it will disappear, published in The New Age, Wednesday, 18 February 2015
Speak your mother language, or else it will disappear
Internationally, February 21 is known as the Mother Language Day. The question is, how many of the African language speakers are aware of this important day? If important, why is it important? What is the value that schools and cultural society attach to such a day? My fear is that the indigenous African languages are gradually heading for extinction. Middle-class African people, supposedly the custodians of the language, might be oblivious of the significant changes that will slowly result in the erosion and extinction of their ancestral languages.
Rather like the proverbial frog that boiled to death, the same could happen to African languages if African governments, African society and educational institutions do not work collaboratively in creating and implementing a strategy to stop African languages’ slow march towards extinction.
There are ominous signs that language death is looming, especially in the South African situation. These signs include, among others, the phenomenon of African middle-class families living in more affluent suburbs. Such families have abandoned speaking their African languages at home, in their search for a ‘better’ language for their children, now enrolled in the former Model C public schools, where the medium of instruction is English. A further contributing factor is the slow pace of the education authorities to implement policies on mother tongue instruction at schools.
The governments in African states evince a similar lack of concern. This is deduced from the attitude of some leaders and politicians. Observe them when they address their political constituencies. Although they are familiar with their own languages, they prefer to address them in a foreign language, which is English in the South African situation.
It is doubtful if they really communicate to them. Their constituencies seem to be serving as platforms for conveying their messages to their primary audience, which is the outside world. That attitude implies that when one wants to communicate an effective message, one should not use African languages. Therefore it is not enough to commence speeches with ‘Sanibonani’, ‘Dumelang’, ‘Molweni’, ‘Avusheni’, etc., but use a foreign language in the presentation of the content of the speech.
Although in South Africa the minister of basic education has tabled a policy of introducing mother tongue education incrementally in primary schools, the implementation could be very daunting owing to a lack of human resources to put the policy into practice. The efforts of the South African ministers of education (both basic education and higher education and training) should be supported in educating African society that children learn more effectively through the use of their mother tongue.
All African languages speakers, including young African languages speakers from primary schools through to higher education institutions, should be conscious of their future role in developing and preserving their mother tongue. They should be aware that there are developed countries, such as China, where learning takes place through the mother tongue. Should they fail to take the necessary steps, their languages may disappear into oblivion.