The loss of indigenous languages and its impact on Africa’s culture and global competitiveness

Held at the Durban Art Gallery on the evening of 15 July 2011, the second eThekwini Living Legends Seminar addressed the loss of indigenous languages and its impact on Africa’s culture and global competitiveness in the 21stcentury. A panel of language, arts and culture professionals, educationists, opinion leaders, activists and the general public shared their views on the status of indigenous languages in South Africa with a public audience. The discussion sought to capture the essence of why indigenous languages were under threat of extinction and what could be done to promote and preserve them in the globalising world of the 21st century.

On the panel were eThekwini living legend Gcina Mhlophe, trail blazer in the transmission of intangible heritage through storytelling; Thulani Mbuli, chairperson of IsiZulu National Language Board under the Pan South African Language Board; Zandile Radebe, educationist and writer in IsiZulu; Nceba Gqaleni, leader of the Traditional Medicine programme at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine and Chair of Indigenous Health Care Systems Research; poet Bongani Mavuso, producer and presenter for Ukhozi FM; and social and political commentator Nhlanhla Mtaka, a columnist with largely isiZulu print media.

Gcina Mhlophe offered a nostalgic account of how Africans used to connect with nature through language. She reminded the audience how, in African culture, imilolozelo (lullabies) and izinganekwane (folktales) signified the connection between humans and animals and highlighted the link between language and identity.

Mbuli asserted the need to contextualize South Africa as part of the African continent and to understand that no language can develop on its own. He lamented our reluctance to confidently express ourselves in our mother tongues and decried our negligence in developing indigenous languages into languages of scholarship; how we have become complacent in using foreign languages as languages of discourse.

Zandile Radebe called for parents to advocate for promotion of indigenous languages in schools and pointed out that communities should work in tandem with the Department of Education to give effect to language policy. The general view from both the panel and the audience was that despite policies which endorse and support equitable development of all official languages the owners of indigenous languages are not keen to take advantage of these policies and lobby for their recognition and development.

Gqaleni provided an instructive illustration of language as a transmitter of cultural identity and meaning within the medical context. He pointed out that medical systems have languages of their own and the mastery of the field depends on the understanding of the language used. To illustrate the point , he expanded on the concept ‘cure’ and how its meaning as understood in the bio-medical field compares with the isiZulu concept ‘ukwelapha’ and the meaning thereof as understood in the field of traditional medicine.

Mavuso posited language as a weapon of colonization, lamenting how languages of colonization have entrenched their hegemony across Africa. He echoed Radebe’s call for lobbying for recognition and development of indigenous languages.

Mtaka spoke of a dual identity dilemma and the concomitant loss of identity as observed in African communities with its apparent hankering after both Western and African cultural practices. He reiterated that indigenous languages are undermined and laid the blame at the doorstep of the speakers of these languages and pointed out that government has failed to ensure that indigenous languages are recognized and developed.

There was consensus regarding the urgency to promote, develop and preserve indigenous languages. The preference of indigenous language speakers to speak English was criticized and the pivotal role of government in indigenous language preservation stressed. Promotion of usage of indigenous languages at home was also emphasized and parents were discouraged from sending their children to English medium, former whites-only schools.

Written by Bheki Mchunu and Betsie Greyling

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