The Economic Value of Indigenous Languages

Wednesday, 2 September, 2009 - 12:07

All languages have economic value; some more than others. In Africa - as a result of a long and often violent history of subjugation and linguistic imperialism - the English and French languages are associated with prestige, economic progress and modernity. The use of indigenous mother tongue is limited to social interaction, and in many instances associated with backwardness, illiteracy and ethno-traditionalism. How can we change these perceptions and develop the economic value of indigenous languages?

South Africa is a multi-lingual country with 11 official languages. After decades of colonial and apartheid rule and the complete disregard of our indigenous languages, its instrumental role in terms of cultural, educational and economic empowerment and more importantly its role in nation building, is finally acknowledged.

Our national constitution provides a policy and institutional framework for the protection, maintenance and promotion of all of these languages (The Constitution, 1996: Chapter 1). Hence a very specific constitutional obligation is placed on all spheres of government to create an enabling environment for all of these official languages to fulfil their rightful roles to spearhead community development, bring about modernisation and assist in overcoming the prejudices and injustices of the past.

The fulfilment of these expectations after 15 years into our democracy remains still unaccomplished. In fact we have reached a critical stage where we need to thoroughly assess the contribution of the language policy and institutional framework in fulfilling these expectations.

Related research undertaken by distinguished South African linguistic scholars such as Neville Alexander, Vic Webb and David Mutasa affirms the extensive scope and good intent of the language policies developed by government. It also confirms the lack of political will to give effect to these policies and failure on the part of the institutional framework mandated with the responsibility to protect and promote the linguistic interests of all South African communities in a fair and equitable manner.

Neville Alexander in an article titled ‘Proper use of mother tongue the way forward;, argues that our language policy, although very progressive on paper, has allowed English to become the ‘de facto sole official language’, which benefits only the middle class and elite in our society. At the same time too little is done to transform our indigenous languages into ‘cultural capital’ in order to create a better life for the working class as well (Alexander, 2008: 9).

The trend towards institutional monolingualism’ and the ‘lack of support’ from public managers for our 11 official language policy are also of concern to Vic Webb. In an article titled ‘Language policy development in South Africa’ he proposes that in order to achieve the language dispensation as envisaged by our national constitution “the power relations between the official languages need to be balanced, so that formerly advantaged people do not continue to have an unfair advantage” (Webb, 2006: 11).

David Mutasa, in his research on South Africa’s the language policy states:

“The people do not see much value in African languages …? Authorities seem to be reluctant to ensure that African languages, by appropriate legal provisions, assume their rightful role as of official communication in public affairs, administrative and educational domains. No one seems to take African languages seriously. They seem to have nothing to offer except in everyday communication between members of families and informal conversation with friends and colleagues” (Mutasa, 2003: 6).

The aforementioned concerns regarding the promotion and protection of our indigenous linguistic interests are however not an isolated South African issue. The spread of English all over the world and the impact it has on the status of indigenous languages is of great concern to many communities and scholars.

In the book Language Policy and Modernity in Southeast Asia, attention is paid to the impact of English on the status of indigenous Southeast Asian languages (Rappa, et. al. 2006: 5). While English is considered an ethnically ‘neutral’ language in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, its widespread use is considered problematic in certain domains. In an article titled ‘Acknowledging value of mother tongue’ published on the Brunei Times website, the author Michael Tan says:

“We need a national language, no doubt, but the current policy is worrisome because it promotes English first, Filipino second — both at the expense of other mother languages. We should allow Filipinos to nurture their own mother language and share this with other Filipinos or even the world. As we begin to appreciate the rhythms and cadences, the humour and the wisdom, in each of our many languages, we just might be able to overcome our parochialism and regionalism and build a nation strong in its multicultural foundations”.

How do we create an enabling environment in South Africa in which mother tongue can be nurtured and fully developed, not only for social and cultural interaction, but also to give it academic and economic value? In order for us to achieve this, a comprehensive understanding of community development theory, the role of mother tongue in this regard and why such an enabling environment is necessary, is required.

Community Development Theory and Mother Tongue

Community development theory and practice focuses on planning and managing policy, projects, programmes and processes relating to sustainable development, poverty eradication, unemployment, social inequality and the depletion of natural resources. On a tactical level, it explores, monitors and evaluates the challenges with regard to community participation, empowerment, capacity building, sustainable development, self-sustainment and the learning process.

According to Davids, community development theory and practice is a relatively new phenomenon which emerged as a discipline after the Second World War. Development theory is divided into different phases. The 1950s and early 1960s were dominated by the theories of the modernisation school of thought. During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a strong focus on the theories of the dependency school of thought and since the 1980s the focus shifted away from the previous macro theories to the development of micro theories or community-oriented development theories (Davids, 1998: 1).

The modernisation school presupposed that the practices of underdeveloped countries were primitive and that Western economic practices and values represented the only recipe to guide communities on a developmental and wealth-creating path. A classical example is the multi-levelled economic growth theory introduced in 1960 by the American scholar Walt Rostow. He proposed five levels which would ensure the development of underdeveloped countries - substituting indigenous and traditional systems with Western practices, creating a new political elite, centralising the political structures, aligning the political, social and institutional entities with economic goals, developing peoples’ technological and entrepreneurial skills and creating mechanisms and institutions which would create high levels of mass consumption and expenditure. This model was criticised mainly because of its strong colonial nature, the dependence on Western capital and its disregard for indigenous languages, culture and knowledge (Davids, 1998: 3-4).

The 1960s were also characterised by the development of language policy for social, political and education systems. According to Hartshorne in Mesthrie, the development of language policy on the African continent was influenced by, on the one hand, the total advantage of colonial languages on nearly all institutionalised levels of society and, on the other hand, the strong desire of academics and writers to use the mother tongues as educational and empowerment instruments to rid their countries of its colonial burden. He summarises this situation as follows:

“There has been a continuing tension in most African countries between these two tendencies accompanied by ambivalent attitudes towards English: on the one hand a recognition of its practical usefulness, on the other an uncomfortable frustration that Africans had little choice because of their subjection to a Western metropolitan culture” (Mesthrie, 1995: 307).

According to Hartshorne, this tension and ambivalence were complicated by the fact that the new political elite totally ignored the academics and writers who argued in favour of the use of mother tongue. After all, the colonial language provided for the immediate language needs of the elite who, without due consideration, accepted it as the best language option for political unity, international communication, a medium to transfer skills and knowledge and which would introduce them to Western value systems.

The rise of the dependency school and their sharp criticism against the development methodology of the modernisation school rekindled hope among academics and writers who campaigned for the use of the mother tongue. According to Davids, the dependency school also propagated the idea that development was not necessarily synonymous with Westernisation. Developing countries were therefore encouraged to break ties with Western capitalist countries and to strive towards self-sustainment and independence. Critics of the dependency school argue that it placed so much emphasis on identifying external stumbling blocks to development that it failed to rise above the level of rhetoric and provide sensible and sustainable development initiatives (Davids, 1998: 12-14).

And although the intrinsic value of mother tongue for sustainable and independent community development was acknowledged by dependency theorists, little progress was made in introducing the mother tongue at an institutional level, especially in Africa. The colonial language status quo was maintained. Alexander describes this situation:

“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 and Busch, 2007).

With the development of micro theories or community-oriented development strategies during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the focus shifted to six important community building blocks - community participation, capacity building, empowerment, self-reliance, sustainability and social learning.

These micro theories are favoured by present-day development practitioners. It lays the foundation for a more context-specific approach to development and policy formulation, which takes cognisance of the unique circumstances, needs, skills, knowledge and values of communities and using it as a starting point to develop communities economically, culturally, educationally, socially and spiritually (Burkey, 1993: 56-70). It also emphasises the value of cultural constructs, such as language, cultural practices and indigenous knowledge systems as a means to restore communities’ self-worth.

“The communitarian perspective attaches a higher value to human agency than either culturally or economically determinist views of social change. Culture and cultural constructions of reality, however, assume a central position in the communitarian perspectives” (Tehranian 1994: 286 in Melkote and Steeves 2001: 335).

Hence it recognises that development initiatives cannot be detached from the context in which the community in question finds itself. It is within a complex framework of past experiences, metaphors, faith, values, perceptions, relationships, power struggles, economic activities, language, cultural and agricultural practices in which any development initiative becomes meaningful.

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 low wages that hardly provide in their basic needs. These communities consequently remain trapped in a spiral of disempowerment and generation after generation fail to escape from 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 determine the scope and intent of our existing language policies, whether it is aligned with the meaning-giving context of the various indigenous language communities and whether if implemented it would be of tangible benefit to these communities.

Scope and intent of current language policies

Two very important policies are worth mentioning here: the National Language Policy Bill adopted by Cabinet in 2003 and the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy which was adopted by Cabinet in 2004.

The SA Languages Bill strategic goals are as follow:

  • To facilitate individual empowerment and national development;
  • To develop and promote the Bantu languages;
  • To provide a regulatory framework for the effective management of the official languages as languages of the public service;
  • To facilitate economic development via the promotion of multilingualism;
  • To enhance the learning of various South African languages;
  • To develop the capacity of the country’s languages, especially in the context of technologisation

The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy seeks to recognise, affirm, develop, promote and protect IKS systems in South Africa. The main IKS Policy drivers include:

  • Practical measures for the development of services provided by IK holders and practitioners, with a particular focus on traditional medicine, but also including areas such as agriculture, indigenous languages and folklore;
  • The affirmation of African cultural values in the face of globalisation – a clear imperative given the need to promote a positive African identity;
  • Underpinning the contribution of indigenous knowledge to the economy – the role of indigenous knowledge in employment and wealth creation; and
  • Interfaces with other knowledge systems, for example indigenous knowledge is used together with modern biotechnology in the pharmaceutical and other sectors to increase the rate of innovation (IKS Policy, 2004: 9).

Given the scope and intent of the aforementioned goals as outlined in the SA Languages Bill and the policy drivers as outlined in the IKS Policy it is clear that ‘cultural constructions’ such as our indigenous languages and knowledge systems ‘assume a central position’ within the mandate of the various departments who developed these policies. One cannot but admire the efforts of the Arts and Culture and Science and Technology government departments and all those who helped them with the development of these policies.

Sadly however, their vision and insight to use our indigenous languages and knowledge systems in as many imaginative ways possible to transform our disparate society into a people-centred society cannot come to fulfilment due to the lack of political will to enact it as legislation through parliament.

One trusts that the Zuma-administration will soon take this matter up with parliament. Because not only will legislation in this regard enforce compliance at all levels of institutional governance and compel the private sector to play their part in promoting multilingualism, but it will also unlock a range of economic possibilities.

Indigenous languages and its economic possibilities

Today we find ourselves at the threshold of the 21st century also known as the Information Society. According to the World Summit on the Information Society held in 2003, an Information Society is one in which

“…everyone can create, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and people to achieve their full potential in promoting sustainable development and improving their quality of life…” (World Summit on the Information Society, 2003 in Wesso, 2007).

The Knowledge Economy is the economic component of the Information Society in which information is used productively or in innovative ways to create wealth.

Our diverse indigenous language heritage is an important enabling resource for developing communities to actively participate in the Knowledge Economy and to create wealth through the generation of knowledge. The perception that our indigenous languages are not fit for this purpose is preposterous. It merely requires a shift in mindset and dedication by its speakers to create a presence on the Internet, design websites and develop sustainable products and services in that particular language.

In this regard much can be learned form Afrikaans and how it is used as an instrument of academic excellence and cultural exchange. In addition it is also the primary driver for a range of economic activities. These economic activities entail the following industries: education, radio, drama, Creative writing, poetry, journalism, television, film, language practitioning, advertising, heritage and tourism, electronic media, traditional food, fashion, architecture, medicine, law, social sciences, design.

The IsiZulu market has also been very responsive to embrace the Knowledge Economy. is the world's first Zulu news site and it carries the same content as Isolezwe, South Africa's top Zulu newspaper. The site's main audience is drawn from the emerging, urban-based, aspirational and knowledgeable Zulu market. Whereas before, Zulu readers may have been hesitant or unable to go online, they are now encouraged to use the Internet as an information tool.

The Way Forward

South Africa’s divisive and often vicious past has left us with a language legacy in which there is a tendency to equate mother tongue with backwardness and traditionalism. It also brings back memories of a divided past, substandard education and tribalism. Such notions are understandable, but we often forget that it is not language in itself that causes conflict and hatred amongst people, but rather the lack of opportunities and inability to access it.

Today South Africa is a democratic state with 11 official languages. Where we come from with respect to our divisive past, is an issue we should always be mindful of. My foremost concern however, is our future. How do we create a fair and just society and start to close the everwidening gap between rich and poor. This in itself is a time bomb waiting to explode.

I am convinced that mother tongue can play a role in this regard, however a number of steps must be implemented to prevent a repeat of our language legacy of yesteryear. This entails:

  • The National Language Bill and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy to be enacted as legislation.
  • Schools to provide quality mother tongue education at primary level and where possible at senior level and learners having a choice to write their final examinations in either their mother tongue or English.
  • Universities in a particular region can start to provide certain classes, depending on the availability of lectures and translation services, in the indigenous languages. In the Western Cape for example UCT, UWC, CPUT, US can all work together to provide students with the choice to attend certain modules in English, Afrikaans and IsiXhosa. This will stimulate the need to translate or write academic textbooks in other languages and improve pass rates.
  • The various products and services on offer by the cultural industry must be made available in all the official languages. Radio, music, books, lexicography and even TV series are already available in most of the official languages. In doing so the cultural industry can become a leading employment industry and a major revenue contributor in South Africa.
  • The various language units at our universities to become more industry focused and train potential artist, writers, musicians, journalist, etc, for the cultural and its related industries.


South Africa stands to lose nothing if we take bold steps and start positioning our indigenous languages as major trajectories for academic excellence and economic empowerment. Instead we stand to gain much in terms of improved academic achievements, self-pride, self-reliance, a more tolerant society, high levels of creativity, communities taking ownership, more economic opportunities, etc.

This does not mean that we should dismiss the importance of English, because it enables us to communicate across local and international boundaries. A good verbal command of the English language and being able to write it fairly well is non-negotiable.

An English only approach is however contrary to the letter and spirit of our national constitution. Also we stand to lose too much if we would go this way.

“A people that loses its language or languages is a people that loses its words, and when a people loses its words, it loses its soul and vision of the world. When this happens the community in question become lodged in dependence that lasts until it recovers its words and begins to articulate its past, present and future, nationally and internationally” (Ndumbe III: 39).

Christo van der Rheede is the CEO: Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans


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