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Why is the Xhosa language undermined?

| March 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Thokozile Mabeqa

This article emanates from my contention that indigenous languages of South Africa are not getting the attention that they should.

African language speakers in South Africa are hesitant about how to preserve and develop their own languages. Some even say their languages are inferior or useless, because the deliberations that determine the economic fate of the world are not conducted in these tongues. Therefore, they say, why study these languages at school or at tertiary institutions? I have found that many black parents in South Africa discourage their children from learning their mother tongue at educational institutions. They prefer their children to study foreign languages from the lowest grades. This article aims to investigate the origins of these viewpoints.

I am who I am because of language I want to start by considering these three terms; language, identity and myself. One would see that these terms are intertwined and, therefore, to explain one you will have to mention the other.

According to the Concise Oxford South African Dictionary, a speaker refers to him or herself using the term ‘myself ’. A similar term is ‘me personally’. I would explain the term ‘me personally’ as referring to the person who firstly has his or her own unique identity, and secondly has roots deriving from a particular nation or tribe. The person shares some common features with fellow tribe members, the most obvious of which is language.

When someone asks me, “Who are you?”, my answer is always: “I am who I am as a member of a particular group of people who share the same language. The Almighty created me and attached a language that I sucked from my mother from birth, and that is why we talk about ‘mother tongue’ language.” I believe, therefore, that language to a large degree determines who a person is. If my mother tongue is isiXhosa, then that means I am Xhosa by birth, and that is the language that I am free to speak and to use to express myself. From a human rights perspective, it is crucial that I am empowered in the language that I fully understand. To be deprived of my language is to undermine my identity and to violate my rights.

In South Africa, one finds that the mother-tongue speakers of South African indigenous languages violate their own rights in an indirect manner and, by so doing, are meddling with their prospective successes.

Historical roots of the underestimation of Xhosa language

Missionaries came to South Africa to preach Christianity to the black people of this country. One of the missionaries’ major objectives was to eradicate African traditional religion to win more converts. They undermined the Xhosa culture, referring to the members of this tribe as heathens. Even now, some speakers of the same languages undermine those who holding to their original traditions and customs.

The apartheid era The indigenous languages of South Africa took on a secondclass status, like those who spoke them, as Afrikaans waged war with English. These two languages became requirements for anyone wishing to participate socially or economically in South Africa. This situation has had dire and long-lasting effects, as evidenced in the following responses of students at the University of the Western Cape to the question:

“Why is isiXhosa not one of your subjects?”

“I will not get a job because it is not used in the workplace.”

“Xhosa is a difficult subject. English is easier than Xhosa.”

“Xhosa is not as interesting as English.”

“English is the international language. Wherever I go throughout the world, English is the language that is spoken.”

“English is the economic and political language. You hear politicians using English although they are not of English origin.”

“People undermine and disparage you here at varsity when you do Xhosa.”

“My parents told me not to do Xhosa because they want me to know English well and become employable.”

Speak your mother tongue with pride Let us reform these opinions. As parents, let us encourage our children to speak and have pride in their language. We should show them that language is the reflection of your culture, values and norms. Politicians, academics and teachers must speak their indigenous languages in all public forums.

We must entreat the government to address the issue of the development of indigenous languages of South Africa. All South African schools must be mandated to accord these languages First Language status.

Acquiring political power but neglecting what shapes the people of that country is a fruitless achievement. We cannot say that we have fully liberated South Africa without having liberated the languages of most South Africans. Seemingly, although we celebrate our political victory we are not yet victorious in other spheres, such as the social and economic spheres of life. In all three spheres, language is crucial as a tool for empowerment.

Category: Autumn 2012

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