05/04/2017 03:56 SAST | Updated 05/04/2017 03:56 SAST

Bureaucratic Rhetoric Won't Develop African Languages

Politicians have completely abdicated their duty, leaving it to academics to develop our languages.

A resident from Heuningvlei during an People attend a church service on September 17, 2014 in Clanwilliam. Heuningvlei is a small village situated in the heart of the Cederberg Mountains. It was started in 1825 when a Khoisan woman married a Dutchman called Okhuis living in the area.
Conrad Bornman / Gallo Images / Getty Images
A resident from Heuningvlei during an People attend a church service on September 17, 2014 in Clanwilliam. Heuningvlei is a small village situated in the heart of the Cederberg Mountains. It was started in 1825 when a Khoisan woman married a Dutchman called Okhuis living in the area.

The discourse on the preservation of African languages will continue to confuse young people until the government advances a clear policy to promote indigenous languages in schools and other social spheres.

The absence of a clear plan to support the development of local languages has discursively conditioned many young people to develop a negative attitude towards the English language, albeit, at their own risk.

Contrary to what other people want to have us believe, English remains an important resource and social capital to achieve social mobility and to access other material and discursive opportunities. This is partly because of the uneven patterns and structures of our society and, in particular, education and economic systems, which are centred around Eurocentric models.

English also occupies a dominant position in the distribution and relations of power. It has been also used discursively to entrench and promote inequality, especially among people who cannot speak and write it properly.

This is a harsh reality that cannot be ignored.

Mastering English positions one at the centre of economic opportunities. But because the language has been associated with cultural imperialism and colonialism, black people who speak 'better English' are considered aliens in other sectors of society. As a leading Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o rightly notes, "In colonial conquest, language did to the mind what the sword did to the bodies of the colonised." So, considering what colonisers have done to destroy our society, this is not entirely surprising.

But it is highly problematic in the absence of postcolonial African policy.

People, especially political leaders who act as self-anointed prefects of our time, usually vilify English and other foreign languages such as French and German, to score political points.

They speak passionately about the significance of indigenous languages on public platforms, feigning concerns for their deterioration in the face of English domination. But their aim is only to fool us with their bureaucratic rhetoric under the pretext of caring about our cultural values and traditions.

It is not astonishing that organisations, such as the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB), whose mandate is to promote the development of languages, including African languages, have remained mediocre without even demonstrating a half-arsed attempt to drive an agenda on language development.

They have resigned their responsibility to academics, who also seem to struggle in leading intellectual and public debates aimed at lobbying the state to support calls for mother-tongue education and the promotion of local languages.

Consequently, this has created a vacuum in our public sphere that gives politicians ammunition to criticise the English monopoly without offering concrete plans to advance local languages.

By the way, often it is the same politicians who send their kids to private schools to learn English as a first language, while poor kids continue to learn English as a second language from teachers who have a complicated relationship with grammar.

This leaves young people from less privileged backgrounds with confusion. They are always reminded of the dangers of losing their cultural identities through learning English without being provided with the capacity to master their mother tongues.

To make things worse, the importance of multilingualism or bilingualism, which PANSALB claims to promote, remains absent from the national discourse of language policy.

As a result of this mess, black students and learners develop linguistic and cognitive problems which negatively affect their learning. By the same token, the majority of black kids can neither speak English nor their mother tongues proficiently.

They are trapped between the discourses that condemn English as an imperialist language and those that superficially promote African languages without providing resources to advance the cause.

These problems emerge in their development stages right until their postgraduate studies.

Academics who have supervised both honours and masters students from most rural schools will tell you that instead of focusing on research concepts and, critically, engaging with academic and conceptual materials, they spend a huge amount of time trying to teach their students basic things, such as sentence construction.

This is frustrating for some lecturers who do not understand the cultural background of such students.

Sympathisers, usually people who have managed to scrape through these structural injustices, believe that the burden of dealing with the troubles of learning a foreign language without appropriate professional guidance has conditioned some students to lose confidence in their abilities.

It has also erected barriers that stop them from learning.

The rippling effect of this is that some end up being accustomed to cutting corners or simply cutting and pasting information from the internet to complete their academic assignments because they are either not equipped to engage with intellectual materials or are not taught to think critically in independent ways.

It is no doubt that this perpetuates structural exclusion and violence - determining who access employment opportunities – and continues to put people learning English as a first language at an advantage.

The chances are, if you struggle to grasp the basic concepts of the medium of instruction, like many kids from rural public schools, your chances of completing a masters programme or an honours degree become limited, let alone securing a job interview.

In his satirical piece, Dear Jobless Graduate, Professor Jonathan Jansen, lamented poor language skills among graduates and how this keeps them unemployed. 'To begin with, take a close look at your curriculum vitae. You will notice spelling errors and large gaps between words. You will see that your paragraphs are not always aligned, and that your references at the end are missing information,' he wrote.

'The way you used language was not upbeat, and you made several grammatical errors that the panel members noticed.'

This does not mean that many kids who are subjected to this problem are less intelligent.

But the learning environments set them up for failure.

In the absence of a coherent ideological programme to develop their linguistic skills, they end up speaking a mixture of two languages without mastering either.

The shortage of senior black academics in a country where blacks command a majority can also be linked to this problem even though it may intersect with other socio-economics problems.

If we do not fix it, especially at basic education level, we should forget about increasing the number of PhD researchers. In addition, the worst part is the large number of students, which emerged as a direct result of the massification of education. It has put strains on our decaying infrastructure and compounded the problem of academic literacy in our education system.

Some students abandon their academic careers because they are continually or repeatedly labelled weak by people who do not understand socio-economic problems that shaped their learning experiences.

Other students obtain lower grades in their research modules, mainly because they struggle with handling the amount of writing required at such levels or to keep up with the rigours of postgraduate education.

These grades simply put a stop to their academic progression, even though they do not holistically reflect their capabilities.

Since high grades are associated with intelligence without questioning the circumstances or conditions that created them, such students are considered stupid and will live with that scar forever. At worst, other assessors commit a costly mistake of using grammar to measure the student's intellects without trying to understand the causes of their lower levels of language proficiency.