The Promotion and Preservation of Indigenous Languages

Last week SAFM held an interesting discussion on the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages in South Africa. Radio presenter, Stephen Grootes, debated the issue with Dr Thabo Ditsele, Linguistic PHD student at UCT; Senior lecturer in African Languages at UCT, Dr Tessa Dowling; and Professor Sihawu Ngubane, Head of African Languages and Linguistics at UKZN, and former Chairperson of the Pan South African Language Board.

The quality of the guests made for a dynamic discussion, which fortunately is still available for download via Some of the more interesting points raised revolved around academic and scientific writing, and whether indigenous languages have the vocabulary to be used in these contexts. It seems that great headway is being made in this regard, with students starting to write research theses in their home languages. Recently UKZN lecturer, Dr Phephani Gumbi, penned his thesis in isiZulu, and Dr Dowling said that this past year two of her students at UCT had chosen to write their doctoral theses in isiXhosa. Obviously great challenges exist as nearly all of the source material is in English, but as was pointed out, the idea is very exciting as students become thought leaders when new concepts are discussed for the first time in indigenous languages.

Central to the discussion was also the concern that indigenous languages are being used less and less, with English often being the preferred language in the home, school and work environment. Professor Ngubane put it plainly: “the only medicine or protection for a language is to use it.” This is exactly what we try to encourage at Ulwazi, with our fieldworkers writing exclusively in isiZulu. Hopefully with greater awareness of the many issues facing indigenous languages in South Africa, we won’t be having this same conversation in five years time….

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