We need to protect our indigenous languages facing threat of extinction

If our languages disappear, it is not only language we are losing, but also our culture and identity - our sense of being, the writer says.
If our languages disappear, it is not only language we are losing, but also our culture and identity - our sense of being, the writer says.
Image: 123RF/ iqoncept

The month of February will be remembered for two important dates as declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for celebration annually by UN members and the world.

The first is World Radio Day, which celebrates radio as a medium on February 13. Declared in 2013, a number of topical themes have been celebrated since.

This year, the focus was on radio and diversity. A few days later, on February 21, it was International Mother Language Day as declared in 1999.

Although themed on languages without borders, emphasis has been placed on the protection of indigenous languages to maintain linguistic diversity in the world. This emphasis links with the World Radio Day theme of radio and diversity.

From a radio perspective, diversity is underpinned by the following (cultural) dimensions: language, content and voices. This, therefore, means there is a correlation between mother tongue and radio, because radio is a medium through which mother tongue is transmitted and promoted.

Radio has undoubtedly remained a resilient medium even in the midst of the ubiquitous digital platforms ushered in by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

Unesco's Global Education Monitoring Report (2016) and Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2010) have revealed two disturbing trends.

Firstly, of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, 3,000 of them, predominantly indigenous, are currently at risk of disappearing, with one language dying every week.

Secondly, the adoption of monolingual education models resulted in 40% of the world's children accessing education in languages they don't understand.

For Africa and other developing worlds, these trends require urgent action because a large proportion of the 3,000 languages facing extinction originate from these territories.

Frankly, none of the world's colonial languages - English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese - is facing the risk of extinction, and neither are their children accessing education in languages they do not understand, unless they choose to do so.

In 2017, I presented a paper on the state of local languages use in broadcasting -Implications for the continuation of a multilingual policy in South Africa - at the University of Cape Town. The paper laments the declining use of African languages in South Africa despite the existence of a multilingual policy, which recognises 11 official languages.

In many of the universities that used to boast multitudes of students pursuing research into the languages, right-sizing has occurred, resulting in a significant decline in student numbers and research outputs.

As research continues to show this decline is not only peculiar to SA. Many countries on the continent have already experienced this phenomenon. The question is, what solution should be adopted to address this problem?

The high audience ratings accounted for by the SABC's radio stations broadcasting in indigenous languages underline not only the resilience but also the strength of indigenous languages if nurtured.

Along with community radio stations, indigenous language stations account for more than 85% of the total radio listenership in South Africa. The biggest radio station by listenership in the southern hemisphere is actually an indigenous language station, Ukhozi, broadcasting in Zulu, with more than seven million listeners.

Given the growth of English as a medium in post-apartheid South Africa, this figure is rather startling.

This therefore means the power of indigenous languages should not be underestimated. If our languages disappear, it is not only language we are losing, but also our culture and identity - our sense of being.

*Boloka is a public servant but writes in his personal capacity

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