The survival of African languages in a digital era

A language offers a window to the soul of a people, their unique knowledge systems and culture. Indigenous languages in particular are, by their nature, lyrical and poetic and most importantly, carry the weight of the rich cultural history of its people with ease. The adoption of inclusive and multilingual language policies, therefore, does not only advance the global vision for social cohesion, but also captures the heart of a people, thereby encouraging the embrace of a rich linguistic and cultural diversity. Elevating the status of indigenous languages and redressing the effects of an oppressive colonial system that sought to strip the identity and dignity of Africa, requires resources and a rigorous dedication to developing indigenous languages. Whereas these languages historically suffered at the hands of unjust colonial laws, presently they are faced with a unique challenge of adapting to a fast changing technological era and all the threats and opportunities it presents. 

The promotion of a multilingual society is espoused in the South African Constitution, through which the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) is established (ACT 59 of 1995) and speaks directly to the freedom of expression, culture, education, access to information, equality and human dignity. However, upholding the values of multilingualism and elevating the status of indigenous languages, is an ideal no single institution can fulfil on its own. Many role players are required to invest resources towards the development of indigenous languages, including ordinary South African citizens. Unfortunately, many language users remain nonchalant about the neglect of indigenous languages. Most seem oblivious to the simple assertion that languages become extinct because their speakers cease utilising them. The death of a language is not a single event that announces itself but a slow and steady erosion that happens over time, often undetected through generations, on account of neglect and failure to recognise value in its relevance.

South Africa is home to many endangered indigenous languages and the fight for their survival requires resources. The political liberation that the country enjoys should also extend to the linguistic freedom of marginalised languages such as the Khoe, Nama and San languages including South African Sign language (SASL). Thankfully, plans are afoot and nearing fruition for SASL’s officialisation process, following some presentations to the constitutional Review Committee of Parliament, for the constitutional amendment of Section 6 to also include SASL as the 12th official language. Priority should be given and extensive resources channelled towards the preservation of indigenous languages that face extinction. PanSALB has, in partnership with Briza Publications, found an innovative way to preserve one of the languages flagged as being at the highest risk of extinction in the country, the N/uu language, which is currently spoken by only four fluent speakers. An audio-visual N/uu dictionary, called The Talking Dictionary, is currently being developed by the institution to preserve the language for posterity.  

Whilst focus should be given to languages that are in immediate danger of extinction, however, we dare not falter in our efforts to advocate for the development and promotion of other indigenous languages that are also under constant threat by the hegemony of English. The relevance and ultimate survival of indigenous languages rest as much with language speakers as it is does with PanSALB and other organs of state, and the only way to ensure their survival is to digitise our efforts and carve out a space for them within the digital space. For indigenous languages to not only survive but to thrive in the ever-changing technological era, our language policies have to effectively capture the spirit of the times we are in and adapt to ensure their longevity and development.

Therefore, in taking stock of our achievements as a nation, despite all our challenges and troubles, perhaps we may pause and ask ourselves these thought-provoking questions; are indigenous languages fully assimilated within the third industrial revolution? Have we effectively digitised them to adapt to the ever evolving virtual environment? And are we even ready to have conversations around the state of readiness of our languages for the fourth industrial revolution when their migration to the digital space is still a matter of major concern? With the entire infrastructure and enabling legislations we have in this country; we still remain under-achievers and perhaps worse off than other countries in the African continent when it comes to the development of our languages. Government provides infrastructure and enabling legislations through Parliament and creates opportunities, and yet we are nowhere closer to realising a truly multilingual society.

As we celebrate Africa Day and what it means it us as a nation, it behoves us all to reflect on these sentiments of unity in diversity, echoed in 1999 by the then president Thabo Mbeki; “We will not permit it that our differences in terms of race, colour and culture serve as cause for us to treat one another as other than South Africans who share a common patriotism and common destiny. Neither shall we permit it that any of our languages, our cultures and religions, are reduced to a position of inferiority or domination by another.”



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