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South Africa Risks Losing Indigenous Languages

In 2013, the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 (UOLA) went into effect. The Act recognized the diminished use and status of nine South African Indigenous official languages: Sesotho sa Leboa – Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. UOLA mandated the state to act to elevate the status and advance the use of these indigenous languages. Its goal was to create multilingualism within working spaces and beyond as a way of social cohesion and nation building.

In March, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) released a report during a media briefing in Tshwane outlining the results of the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012. The report showed a lack of implementation by government departments and citizens.

According to PanSALB Project Manager and head of the Geuteng office, Dr. Sally Meapa, “almost all departments perceived UOLA and the multilingual language policy implementations as sheer provisions of translation and interpreting services, rather than creating equitable space for the official languages to grow and create value. Most departments admitted to not having done anything about implementing UOLA.”

Dr. Maepa went on to say departments displayed a strong preference toward English.

As a result of this lack of implementation, South Africa now is at greater risk of losing its Indigenous languages.

PanSALB’s recommendations to right the ship on this Act include:

  • The government departments should construct acceptable multilingual language policies with a time-framed implementation plan.
  • Both the language policy and its implementation plan should be strategically biased toward the development and creation of business spaces for the Indigenous South African official languages.
  • The departments should make solid provisions for enough resources to enable language policy implementation.
  • The departments should appoint professional and expert language practitioners well-versed in multilingualism, language policy, language politics and related studies.
  • The departments should be dutifully bound to develop its own specialized multilingual terminology lists and verify and authenticate accordingly.

To read more, please see: South Africa: SA risks losing indigenous languages.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue unique to South Africa. Indigenous languages are rapidly disappearing around the world. According to National Geographic, every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. 50% to 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages are predicted to disappear by the next century.

52 of the 176 known languages once spoken in the United States are thought to be dormant or extinct.

The complex reasons for the loss of languages include assimilation, lack of resources and written records, political persecution and coercion like colonization and the devastating stories of Indigenous children being beaten for speaking their native tongues at Indian Residential Schools. All of these reasons have resulted in languages disappearing when their last speaker dies.

Frederico Andrade has a perspective I found particularly interesting. According to him, forced suppression is no longer the biggest threat to our linguistic ecosystem, even though suppression still exists today. He says most languages die today because they are made nonviable through factors like climate change and urbanization, which have driven linguistically diverse rural and coastal communities to migrate and assimilate to new communities.

“This form of language loss is a cancer, not a gunshot,” said Andrade.

Daniel Bogre Udell, the co-founder of a nonprofit called Wikitongues, and Frederico Andrade launched an ambitious program in 2014 to create the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented nearly 400 languages, which they are tracking online, with plans to hit 1,000 in the coming years. Wikitongues has a network of volunteers in 40 countries to film native speakers talking in the past, present and future tenses of their languages.

Other initiatives, like National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project supported by Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages also exist to preserve the world’s languages.

“When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature and oral traditions,” said Daniel Bogre Udell.