Language Rights and the practicality of a multilingual state


Fostering an effective multilingual state

In his paper on language rights in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, former Constitutional Judge Albie Sachs, explores the practicality of a multilingual state and further acknowledges the historical legacies and legal prescripts that inspired and currently govern the Constitutional obligations on the use of languages in South Africa. He writes, “The peopling of our country has been such that we have a multiplicity of languages used in a great number of different situations. Language utilisation and status reflects cycles of conquest and re-conquest. The situation is a product of historical conflict and interaction, not of constitutional prescription”.

Our national history, therefore, compels us to consider the multi-faceted tools that have been used during different periods in time, to diminish, oppress and disempower our people. Language comes at the top of the list of tools often favoured by oppressors to strip people of their identity and culture with the express intention to enforce assimilation. Throughout time language has been used for economic gain, a vehicle to access information for socioeconomic benefit. Language, therefore, cannot be considered as a mere means to communicate, but rather as a tool that can be used to include or exclude language groups from participating in socioeconomic opportunities. The barriers that exist based on language status can hinder the attainment of self-actualisation and self-determination by the disadvantaged language groups. The Pan South African Language Board was established to advance the development of all languages commonly used in South Africa, official and otherwise, to ensure the prevention of the use of any language for the purposes of exploitation, domination, or division.

The dynamics of language use, however, continue to shape the linguistic landscape of the country and has a direct impact on the socioeconomic hierarchy of languages in society. Languages as tools of inclusion or exclusion determine the ‘fortunes’ of speech communities. Languages that are used for business and trade stand a far better chance at soliciting investment toward their development and often enjoy a wider language usage and status. The disparities that exist between privileged languages and the previously marginalized languages also have an impact on the ability of language users to access empowering information. Critical areas that are continually affected by language policies and their implementation are education, court proceedings, and state information. These are arguably the most critical of all affected areas as they each have implications on the ability of individuals to improve their economic, social, and language status. Therefore, for the state to be considered an effective multilingual government, it must measure its success or lack thereof in terms of the inclusivity of its education system, the representation of all language groups within court proceedings, and the economic participation of the different language groups.


Notwithstanding the complexities associated with a multilingual states, language continues to play a critical role in nation-building. However, the values espoused in the Constitution of a multilingual society are oftentimes disregarded as ‘lofty ideals’ that cannot possibly be practically implemented. Such perceptions tend to have a damaging effect on the development of indigenous languages and mars all efforts to deliver linguistic justice to previously marginalized language groups. The inescapable fact is that the language issue is never without politics, and as such, warrants great consideration and care in its handling. Whilst the undertaking to provide for the recognition and furtherance of multilingualism in the Republic of South Africa is constitutionally obligated to the Pan South African Language Board, its implementation, however, rests on many role players that must actively contribute to bringing about its realisation. An effective multilingual society must employ practical means such as the use of translation and interpreting services and provincial government language policies that make determinations that consider the language(s) dominance of their constituencies, taking into consideration the non-diminution of rights relating to language and the status of languages that existed prior to the inception of the democratic Constitution of the Republic.


Basic human rights make provisions for the protection of one’s right to use one’s language without fear of prejudice. The promotion of a multilingual nation, however, often encounters unfortunate misconceptions that assume that multilingualism refers only to a collective of people speaking different languages. This is a perception that is not incorrect in its entirety, however, it fails to consider individual multilingualism. The aspirations espoused in the Constitution of the Republic are that of additive multilingualism i.e., learning of each other’s languages whilst preserving own mother tongue. In this respect, learning one language must never be at the expense of your own language. The vision for a multilingual society in South Africa can therefore be summarised as being in the same vein as the phrase ‘each one teach one’ that was used by political prisoners of the struggle in Robben Island to share knowledge amongst themselves. Multilingual aspirations therefore need not be confined to formal education or state communication but can be a collective responsibility to share our cultural and linguistic heritage to celebrate and embrace our diversity as a nation. Therefore, as opposed to a tool that can be used to divide, language becomes a unifying element to bring together language groups through taking an interest in and learning each other’s languages.

Linguistic diversity is a national resource that is essential in contributing to mankind’s knowledge and providing us with different ways of understanding the world and failure to make provisions for our languages directly infringes on the linguistic rights of our people and is a travesty equal to the oppression indigenous languages were subjected to during the colonial and apartheid era. Therefore, our languages must be developed and cultivated to empower speech communities to enjoy the same freedoms available to privileged languages.



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