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By Don Makatile | Feb 11, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

SHE speaks my language!

In both isiZulu and English, Brenda Mhlambi, the head of the African languages department at Wits University, is likely to leave audiences in agreement with her.

She speaks passionately when she tells the story of how, from 1652, the languages of the colonial masters thrived at the expense of indigenous tongues.

It is a subject she knows well.

She even writes papers on it: "A few Dutchmen that set foot on the African soil during the middle of the 17th century declared that natives should learn our language, rather than we theirs."

The British and the Afrikaner would each do the same during their intermittent periods of rule.

As a result, local languages suffered. The San and the Khoi, the first blacks the Dutch came into contact with, were taught Dutch.

As the colonial masters set to work to convert the locals from their "heathen" practices, missionaries came to the fore to help create a language structure.

Mhlambi writes in another academic paper: "The missionaries reduced African languages to writing as a part of their evangelical mission of spreading the word of God, translated the Bible and hymnals, compiled dictionaries and grammar books."

The only good that came out of the missionary period were the first generation of African intellectuals, says Mhlabi - people such as Sol Plaatje, HIE Dhlomo, WB Vilakazi and MC Marivate.

"They had a beautiful flair of both their mother tongue and English," she says about them, making a case for mother tongue education later in the interview using these as an example.

When the Nationalists came to power in 1948, their drive to consolidate Afrikaans literary development gained impetus.

At this point Mhlambi has us truly captivated.

The new ruling NP was aware of the significance of language as economy, she says. Between 1910 and 1920, Dutch was done away with and replaced with Afrikaans. This was done so Afrikaans competed neck and neck with English.

A certain Professor Preller was tasked with ridding Afrikaans of any Dutch influences, says Mhlambi.

There were funds available to develop the literary canons of Afrikaans. They wrote books, did movies in their taal - "they were highly conscious of what they wanted as a people".

The Afrikaner spread his tentacles of influence. Kicking out the Dutch in the then South West Africa, now Namibia, Afrikaans was foisted on people as an official language.

In their subsequent pact governments, the Dutch, English and the Afrikaner each fought to uphold their own languages - to the detriment of local tongues.

When the Afrikaners came to power alone in 1948, the story of how Afrikaans was forced down our throats is well documented, culminating in the 1976 uprisings.

But when the apartheid government relented and asked black parents to choose, they opted for English as a medium of instruction for their children.

The chance for African languages to get on the pedestal was lost at this point.

Mhlambi pauses to speak briefly about the impact on languages of the 1950s journalism and the Utopia called Sophiatown, a Harlem of sorts, she calls it.

"They crafted their own identity," she says about the people of Kofifi and their writers at the time, "one of defiance. This identity needed a language to go with it. Newspapers developed their own rhythmic English, which was not mainstream, not American, but localised."

Mhlambi trained as a teacher, but in the year she graduated there was a moratorium imposed on teaching posts. She stayed at home for a year.

The following year her mother had saved up enough money for the daughter's university studies.

"Make sure that you pick up on isiZulu," her mother admonished at the time.

"Always work on something that you know," mom would add and that would lead Mhlambi on to a love affair with African literature, English literature and linguistics.

She had specialised in all three and when she speaks her English, with good diction - and fast - you could tell this is someone schooled in language.

Her mother, though not highly educated, was an ardent reader.

Mhlambi has passed on the same teachings to her children, who speak, write and read isiZulu and English with equal flair.

She picks up on her pet pique - the disregard for the centrality of mother tongue education in the development of a child. She researched the need for mother tongue education, lapping up the advice of the likes of American language acquisition expert Cummins, who studied the English proficiency of Latino-Americans.

Her research is instructive and was echoed by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who decries English as a barrier to the black African learner, given the dismal 2009 matric results.

She has a lot of respect for the Afrikaner. "Their kids perform well at school. They use their language throughout the education system."

The story about our own tongues being a part of the 11 official languages is a farce, she reckons.

"It is entirely up to governments to declare which language should be used as a communication model. If they had chosen isiZulu in 1994, for example, that it is the language of economy, then everyone else would have been forced to learn the language.

"African languages are official. Let that translate into tangible feasible kinds of outcomes."


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