Under Threat of Extinction

Last week we wrote about attempts that are being made to promote indigenous languages in South Africa, so this week we thought we would take a more in-depth look at some of the reasons that isiZulu, and other African languages, are under threat.

An article published a few years ago on Afropolitan.co.za provides great insight into why the language problem exists. What follows is a summary of some of the main points.

Bar graph and pie chart showing South Africa's languages, according to the 2011 census
Bar graph and pie chart showing South Africa’s languages, according to the 2011 census

While South Africa has eleven official languages, with isiZulu being the largest in terms of numbers with 20% of the population listing it as their first language, across the continent there are thought to be as many as 2000 African dialects. Many of these dialects are slowly dying out and very little is being done to maintain them.

One of the primary reasons for this is the need to make oneself understood as the ulimi ibhizinisi, or language of business, remains English. It also seems that people don’t believe there to be serious repercussions to discarding an indigenous language, however nothing could be further from the truth. In a TED Talk, entitled Don’t Kill Your Language, Suzanne Talhouk observes, “The only way to kill a nation – is to kill its language”. The language we learn shapes the way we see the world, how we describe it, and how we imagine it.

Another major issue is the slow entry of indigenous languages into the schooling system, with many learning institutions still only offering Afrikaans as a second language choice. The Incremental Introduction of African Languages, run by the Department of Basic Education, aims to introduce previously marginalised African languages into all schools by the end of this year. Progress however seems somewhat slow.

Without active and effective intervention, the gentle clicks and hollow rolls of the tongue that are so distinctively South African, could fade into obscurity” Cath Jenkin, Afropolitan, March 2015

Economic migration is another big factor, with families often leaving behind grandparents, who would often act as custodians of language and culture. Marriage across language barriers also plays a significant role, with English becoming the common denominator, and the easiest way to communicate. A move to more affluent and historically white neighbourhoods has also resulted in a decrease in children speaking their mother tongue. Parents from lower economic groups often feel the need to communicate solely in English so as to give their children the best start in life.

So, it seems that the problems facing local languages are many and varied but, on a positive note, more people are open to talking about the the issues and through debate hopefully we will see positive, concrete plans put in place to promote our indigenous languages.

To read Cath Jenkins full discussion on the topic visit www.afropolitan.co.za

Image courtesy of southafrica-info.com

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