Official Language, Mother Tongue & Lingua Franca: How should these sensitivities be handled in a multicultural society?

A Personal View – April 2014

Theoretically in terms of the South African Constitution all languages are guaranteed equality of treatment but is it possible or even desirable in such a multilingual country with nine official languages?

A family history will illustrate how “transient” or flexible the language issue really is. My late maternal grandmother [nee Nel] was born in the 1870s to 1880s on a farm in the Middleburg District in the Eastern Cape. With a paucity of other white families in the area, her natural play mates were the children of the farm workers. Naturally Xhosa became her stronger language as most of her communication was with her friends, the black Xhosa speaking children on the farm. At the time her family spoke a pidgin version of Dutch which was prevalent at the time.

This all changed dramatically when she went to school. Her first years at school were traumatic as the language of instruction was Dutch which was the official language. She struggled with this new language as she found its syntax obtuse & spelling especially taxing. By a dint of hard work she became proficient at Dutch & her Xhosa speaking ability languished with her only practice being with the servants.

This was to change radically again! Moving to the bustling sea port of Port Elizabeth, who should she meet but an Englishman by the name of Dix-Peek? This man was a recent immigrant from Britain & knew not one word of Afrikaans. Love bloomed & they married. Granny Dix was forced to learn a third language – the language of the British – English. In time this became her mother tongue.

Thus English had become the third lingua franca in her life.

One of the few memories that I have of this woman is her trying to teach me as a five year old how to speak Xhosa as she believed that it was important that the language of her pre-school period should be learnt to a level of proficiency to be able to communicate with our fellow South Africans. Until today, I still remember a smattering of Xhosa words due to her efforts.

Obviously in her life, language was merely a method of communication & the actual language itself was immaterial.

My late father-in-law is also a case in point. His grandparents who were Danish lived in an area of Denmark adjacent to the German State of Schleswig-Holstein. His wife was an English women whose surname was Wells. After the Prussians decisively beat the Danish during the Second Schleswig War in 1864, this area was ceded to Germany. At the stroke of the pen during the Treaty of Vienna, this territory became German & the official language in turn became German.

In 1950, his grandchild, Jens, elected to emigrate to South Africa. Thus for the second half of his life, his spoken language became by default English.

The stories above do not imply that one should be forced to abandon one’s mother tongue but it serves merely as a reminder that one’s language is probably not as important as critics allege. To do so would imply disparagement & second class status.

For me all languages are equally important in themselves & it would be a great loss if they were lost to posterity.

South Africa illustrates the conundrum that all multilingual countries face. If there are only 2 or 3 official languages, according equal importance to all languages is not too much of an imposition on the general citizenry. All official documentation, signs, notices et cetera can all be reproduced in all official languages. A problem only arises when there are greater than three languages in that all the duplication efforts become too onerous to impose. What generally occurs is that one language & in Africa’s case, the language of their former Colonial Master, becomes de facto & in most cases, de jure the official language of the country.

With the ascension of the ANC to power, the English language has fulfilled the unofficial role as official language of government & business in general. The role of Afrikaans in the Civil Service, which was once its stronghold, has now been eclipsed by English.

This is pragmatic policy making at its best.

The designation of one language as the Official Language in a multilingual society devalues the role & importance of the other languages. However as Africa as shown, one language will always dominate for whatever reason. As such it will wear the mantle as primary official language albeit informally bestowed.

Is this not a better solution?

Of course! Honour & the fig leaf of equality is maintained without the necessity to proclaim an Official Language.


Leave a Comment.