Attempts to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty will never be successful as long as we disregard or underestimate the role and impact of indigenous languages in the educational, economic, social and cultural sectors of any society. These sectors often remain inaccessible to communities if they have to access it through a foreign language only or when products and services are only available in a foreign language. This is not only disempowering, but it entrenches the myth that indigenous languages are of lesser value. This paper therefore investigates the educational and economic value of indigenous languages and proposes practical steps to unlock it in order to benefit the speakers of indigenous languages and to probably break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.
We live in an information society in which the creation and distribution of information is the most significant economic, cultural, educational and social activity. The knowledge economy is the economic component of the information society in which the production and utilisation of knowledge play a principal role in the creation of wealth. Our diverse and dynamic indigenous language heritage is an important enabling resource for developing communities to actively participate in the knowledge economy and spearhead development within their own communities themselves.
This point of view is however not appreciated or clearly understood by various stakeholders, whether it be the speakers of indigenous languages themselves, scholars or politicians. It is therefore important to investigate the educational and economic potential of indigenous languages in order to dispel the myth that our South African indigenous languages cannot function at the same level as English or Afrikaans. This is done through a sector analysis in which our indigenous languages already function as core educational and economic drivers. In addition, it also investigates how to create a digital presence with indigenous languages and propose particular steps which communities can follow to use their indigenous languages to their advantage in order to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.
Why is it that in all developed countries, the majority of schools and universities provide mother tongue education, but in developing countries most learners do not have the benefit of being taught in their mother tongue? And why is it that in all developed countries the media industry, such as the electronic, print, radio, television, film, post and telecommunication, music, language practitioners and related sectors provide most of their products in the mother tongue, but in developing countries the same industries provide very few if any products in the local languages?
Is it because developing countries regard their own languages as inferior as opposed to developed countries who purposefully seek to preserve, protect, promote and commodify their own languages for educational and economic purposes? And in addition, is it because developing countries lack the political will to preserve, protect, promote and commodify their own languages and as result fail to optimise the educational usage and economic value thereof?
The answers to the aforementioned questions can be relayed back to our colonial past. Because not only did colonialism play a major role in terms of entrenching the belief that our indigenous languages and culture equate backwardness, illiteracy and ethno-traditionalism, but it simultaneously positioned the languages of the colonial powers as symbols of civilisation by embedding them in all public and private spheres as the official means of communication for educational and economic activities (Alexander 2008; Webb 2006 & Mutasa 2003).
Reversing this proclivity towards colonial languages poses a major challenge for most African countries and especially the political elite. Because, in most instances after the political power was handed to newly elected African governments, very little was done to improve the status of indigenous languages and optimise the economic potential thereof. According to Alexander the “African elites who inherited the colonial kingdom from the ostensibly departing colonial overlords, for reasons of convenience and in order to maintain their grip on power, have made nominal gestures towards equipping the indigenous languages of the continent with the wherewithal for use in powerful and high-status contexts” (Alexander 2007: 18).
Hence, in a paper titled ‘Language Policy Development in South Africa’, Webb appeals to the newly democratically elected South African government to steer clear from such ‘nominal gestures’, and instead to focus on proper language planning which is aimed at elevating the status and advancing the use of our indigenous languages within the education, economic, social, cultural and political spheres (SA Constitution 1996: Section 6.2)1 .
This meaningful function which Webb refers to includes using our indigenous language for educational, social, cultural, economic and political empowerment. He emphasises however the importance of language planning in South Africa in order to optimise the usages of our indigenous language and cultural resources to enable communities to actively participate in the knowledge economy, to advance education and to create wealth. Such educational and economical optimisation of our indigenous languages is therefore crucial to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.
A study in this regard however indicates that the official indigenous languages with the exception of English and Afrikaans (indications are however that the status of the latter is steadily eroded) remain marginalised. It states the following:
Hence the challenge for South Africa is to democratise the linguistic landscape and end the interrelated educational and economic marginalization of the bulk of our citizens.
On the one hand, this requires political will to honour the language stipulations as set out in our National Constitution, political conviction to enact the South African Language Bill and political vivacity to implement the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy adopted by Cabinet in 2004 . Scholars such as Alexander, Webb and Mutasa agree that this is certainly the most crucial point of departure for achieving a more equal language dispensation and to broaden the participation of previously marginalised people in mainstream economic activities. Mutasa (2003: 325) highlights,
On the other hand, it requires vision, self belief and entrepreneurial thinking by the language community itself to:
- Employ our indigenous languages as knowledge extractors, generators and distributors
- Promote and mobilise support for mother tongue education
- Expand the existing industries or economic sectors where indigenous languages function as core economic drivers
- Create a digital presence with indigenous languages
- sustain the presence and mobilise support
- Grow the digital linguistic space occupied by indigenous languages and concomitantly increase its share within the knowledge economy
- Create wealth and to optimise its educational and economic usage in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty
Keith Nurse in a paper titled ‘Culture as the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development’ reminds us however to be always mindful of whose development agenda is served through such entrepreneurial thinking and advises that communities must own such development agendas and drive the process themselves to avoid creating new dependencies. He puts the following argument forward:
Economic and Educational Optimisation of Indigenous Languages
As set out in the previous paragraph, in order to achieve these ideals this paper will:
- Analyse some key sectors in which the various official indigenous languages of South Africa are deployed as the core drivers of educational and economic activity, such as Education, Radio, Television, Film, Advertising, Print media and Electronic media,
- Identify ways of creating a digital indigenous linguistic space,
- Explore ways to grow such a digital indigenous linguistic space educationally, socially as well as commercially, and
- Provide practical steps for communities to drive the economic and educational optimisation process of indigenous languages themselves.
General and Further Education
A great deal has been written about the year-on-year decline in matric results in South African schools, the low levels of literacy and numeracy, the high drop-out rate of learners and the low levels of skills of school leavers which is required for the industrial sector or place of work. This is because, in part, the majority of learners in South African schools are not taught in their mother tongue which could be any of the indigenous languages, but are taught in a language other than their mother tongue.
In most cases the language of learning and teaching would be English and in some instances Afrikaans. According to Horne (2007:6), this problem is further compounded by educators “who are not sufficiently skilled to cope with the demands of language–of–learning English in the classroom”. In many instances subtractive bilingualism is practiced, due to inapt code switching between English and the mother tongue, instead of following a systematic process of additive bilingualism, meaning laying the foundation solidly in the mother tongue first and to progressively introduce English as a second language (Horne, 2007:4).
In the event of schools practicing transitional bilingual education, the transition from the mother tongue as language of instruction to English should be thoroughly planned to avoid subtractive bilingualism. If schools however practice maintenance bilingual education English is added, but it does not replace the mother tongue as language of instruction. Additive bilingualism is further strengthened by the extensive use of the mother tongue (UNESCO 2008:8).
In addition, teaching and learning is a two-way communication affair and a mismatch between the language of teaching and the mother tongue of the learner seriously affects the learner’s academic progress. In many instances this problem is further complicated when the teacher is not competent in the language of teaching (Nomlomo 2005:269) . The matter of mother-tongue bilingual education is therefore a factor which must be taken into account if we wish to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty. In terms of educational value it greatly enhances the quality of teaching and learning and in terms of economic value it contributes to a higher through-put rate and the development of knowledgeable and skilled citizens.
In terms of the latter, some scholars are also advocating that mother-tongue bilingual education be extended to higher education as well. The Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions released in 2008 also emphasises the instructional value of indigenous languages. It however, states that most universities in South Africa, with the exception of some of the historically Afrikaans universities and one or two others have failed to introduce any of the indigenous language as a medium of instruction.
However, Ramani and Joseph have found that “much of the aggressiveness towards African languages disappears once an African language is presented as medium as part of a dual-medium programme” (Ramani & Joseph 2006:17). The work of Ramani and Joseph centres around the development of a dual-medium BA degree in English and Sesotho sa Leboa at the University of Limpopo which is based on a model of additive bilingualism. This model enables students to develop their English as well as their mother tongue competencies for “higher-order cognitive work” (Ramani & Joseph 2006:4).
The aforementioned approach of introducing our indigenous languages as mediums of instruction together with English in higher education can improve our understanding of the complex indigenous framework of past experiences, metaphors, faith, values, perceptions, relationships, power struggles, economic activities, language, cultural and agricultural practices and develop innovative strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Such insights can never be gained if we continue to undervalue our indigenous languages.
In addition, communities will not take ownership of projects that they cannot relate to or that do not fit into their meaning-giving context. For their context is, after all, the only one within which they can confidently associate with projects designed to improve their living conditions. That these communities are also exposed to other contexts through the radio, television, computer, cellular phone, urbanisation, migration and globalisation cannot be dispelled. However, this exposure is often limited to the supply of cheap labour in exchange for a living wage which is any way too little to escape the spiral of disempowerment, poverty, ignorance and despair.
Kotze concurs and makes the following valuable observation: “The people’s meaning-giving context is the only framework within which they can relate to developers. It is the framework within which development initiatives obtain meaning. It will either permit or block development, depending whether there is a ‘fit’ between development initiatives and context. People will not be steered, influenced or ‘taken with’ unless the development initiative has positive meaning within their context” (Kotze & Kotze 1996:7).
Given this background, it is necessary to investigate some of the key sectors in which the various official languages of South Africa are deployed as the core drivers of educational and economic activity, specifically radio, the publishing sector and electronic media and what in addition could be done to optimise the use of our indigenous languages in these sectors in order to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.
Click HERE to read the full article.
1 Read Section 6 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa as adopted by the Constitutional Assembly on 8 May 1996 and as amended on 11 October 1996.
2 The National Language Policy Bill approved by Cabinet in 2003 seeks to develop and promote the Bantu languages in order to facilitate economic development via the promotion of multilingualism and develop the capacity of the country’s languages, especially in the context of technologisation (South African Languages Bill 2003).
3 The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy was adopted by Cabinet in 2004. The purpose of this policy is to recognise, affirm, develop, promote and protect IKS systems in South Africa. It is also provides a basis upon which indigenous knowledge can be used to improve the lives of many and to eradicate poverty (Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy 2004).
4 The study undertaken by Vuyokazi Nomlomo focused on the impact of language on effective teaching and learning in Science. Two grade four isiXhosa mother tongue groups, one taught in English and the other in isiXhosa, were observed and the data showed that learners taught through the medium of isiXhosa (56%) outperformed those taught in English (30%).
5A BA degree in Contemporary English Language (CELS) and Multilingual Studies (MUST) was implemented since 2003 at the School of Languages and Communication Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Limpopo.