English threatens indigenous languages with extinction

English has been erroneously used as a measure of intelligence in kids and teens, the writer says..
English has been erroneously used as a measure of intelligence in kids and teens, the writer says..
Image: 123RF/ iqoncept

SA's diversity is celebrated as one that expresses unity and harmony in a polycentric world. Perhaps that is why others might even overreach to label us as a nation - a rainbow one.

Our ethnic diversity brings challenges like in any diverse society. There will always be majority and minority groups, particularly linguistically. Our history of colonial dominance is not over in many ways and that includes over our indigenous languages.

The colonisation of indigenous African languages by European-American settlers still reigns supreme in SA.

English still remains the first among equals in our languages.

This is not a call to remove English but the issue is its dominance as a language of the minority.

It is not about placing another African language such as Zulu or Venda as a centre of power. This is about protecting these indigenous languages from irrelevance and possible extinction at the mercy of English.

There is rapid urbanisation in SA, and this creates urban cultures or ways of living that are often cosmopolitan.

It is a good thing for diverse communities to be integrative but there is always the danger of assimilation by other communities that are dominant.

The case of English is one perfect example. Most fellow South Africans recognise English as their second language and use it in their daily lives, including at home.

It has been erroneously used as a measure of intelligence in kids and teens. A good English accent makes one seem intelligent and to be of good standing.

People of colour often ridicule each other for mispronunciations and grammar. This elevation of English to be the first language of Africans and as a symbol of excellence is at the expense of African languages.

There are many South Africans - especially millennials and Generation Z - who are very poor in their mother tongue and are often (subconsciously) proud of it. This, in turn, leads to the possible extinction of their languages.

This can start as early as at primary school. When they go to tertiary institutions the lingua franca is English and they meet diverse people.

To use English in this case makes sense as a common language if people do not know each others' languages. Sometimes there is no urge to learn the other's language and sometimes there is. Those who are often not eager to learn continue with English and that is often at the expense of their indigenous language.

It is not weird that we do not find our languages to be "lit" or attractive. Our mentality is still engulfed by colonial attitudes that whisper into our subconsciousness that anything that is African is not good enough, it is not worth attention and is useless. At this point we should ask why many "white" South Africans do not know a single African language.

Language is not only a key tool for communication or exchanging messages. Language has its locus of power through its ability to create collaborations, promoting tolerance and peace, cohesion, dignity, enhancing understanding of others and as a benchmark to coexistence. Language is the main expression of any civilisation.

Some of SA's problems such as racism, sexism, rhetorical discourses and the misunderstanding of cultures can be solved through the use of language.

*Malima is a student and former advocacy leader for political sustainable development at World Merit South Africa.

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