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Kopano Matlwa

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The article as i wrote it (and not what appeared in the paper)

“The state of indigenous languages in schools or tertiary institutions”

…is sad. But then again, I am no authority on the topic, just a young person, growing up in now south Africa, torn between that flourishing, booming world that benchmarks itself against the proud Western standard and a vague almost contradictory voice within that intermittently screams ‘but can’t we do it our way!’

But who cares and who is listening anyway? Indigenous languages have fizzled out in Nigeria, Liberia, Togo, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone so what makes us think we are any different and that we will survive natural selection? Perhaps, as some suggest, it is progressive to leave all of it behind, move with the times, adapt and stop trying to politicize everything. Languages, they will tell you, expire all the time all over the world, Latin, Welsh, Cornish, Yiddish being some of the few. Societies are dynamic, and as they change, move and evolve so do languages.

But is it that simple? A light matter of adaptation? Are languages not more than just strings of words that can be forgotten and discarded like plastic jewelry?

You see it is debates such as these that I hate, that force one to dig deep within oneself, that result in one’s sharing personal experiences one had no intention of mentioning at the outset. One cannot speak about issues around language, heritage, race and culture diplomatically and often come out of it with a number of smelly feet in one’s mouth. So do not say I did not warn you.

The state of indigenous languages in schools or tertiary institutions is not just sad but tragic, dire, grave. Not so much because the structures or bills or policies are not in place, but because of the mentality behind indigenous languages. The mentality that goes ‘if its black, its wak.’ That mentality that has been with us from before-before, that mentality that has loyally stuck with us though thick and thin, that mentality that refuses to leave us still. We have been brought up to believe that anything that is even mildly reminiscent of old Afrika is backward, regressive, slow and inhibitory. And language is merely an outward manifestation of those deep rooted convictions. So what if your school offers Sesotho as a subject, if you do not believe it will get you anywhere of course you will not take it.

When a French women walks into the room staggering and stumbling over English words, her heavy accent making it near impossible to decipher where she is going with what she is saying, we find ourselves captivated. When a Zulu women walks into the room knocking herself on English words, bumping and smashing terms in her way, her heavy accent making it difficult to discern what she is up to, we find ourselves concerned. Captivated by the allure and charm of the French language; Concerned by the Zulu women, because surely in this day and age, at a time when education should be freely available to all, she should at the very least be able to communicate the basics in English.

When a Russian accent works into the lecture theatre and puts up its slides, conversations abruptly cease, pens and highlighters are held ready because what is to come is surely founded on intellect and years of research and study and thus not even a word can be missed. When a Tswana accent works into the lecture theatre and sets up its slides, conversations pause to check out the curious form, note pads are forgotten in the school bag and pens only used to take down the references that will certainly be checked once the lecture has ended.

On the play ground when an English speaking girl attempts to repeat a phrase in Sepedi and calls a cat a mat we smile and hug her warmly because her heart is in the right place, but on that same playground when a Xhosa speaking girl calls a boy a she and a she a man we cringe and hastily correct her and hope, for her sake anyway, that she never makes that mistake again.

A friend of mine had this to say on the subject, “The Chinese can be arrogant about their languages because they have a product the world wants, we cannot be arrogant about our languages because we have nothing to offer the world. As long as we are dependent on the Western world we have to play the game according to their rules.” But is that right there not just the problem. We do not believe we have anything to offer the world, and worse, that we will ever have anything to offer the world. We ourselves do not consider our selves worthy, let alone our tongues, how then do we ever expect anyone else to see them in that light? I dare say it has less to do with what you speak and more to do with how you feel about yourself and your people. The languages of old Europe that are no longer spoken were not so much lost but transformed into other languages, like Latin which gave rise to French, Spanish and Italian. That was natural, as a result of a mixing of peoples, but what has happened in Africa is the least bit natural, it is a deliberate swapping of Tsonga for English, Lomongo for French, Kimbundu for Portuguese, anything for anything that does not sound African. I can say this with confidence because I know. I grew up in a time when the rules had changed but the sentiments hadn’t, when Mrs. Van Vuuren said we weren’t allowed to speak that nonsense to each other because she could not tell what we were up to, when we got laughed at for sounding so black and when we practiced the ‘English of the Nose’ in front of our mirrors at home.

Our foundations in academia, business, and literature are built in English. I write this article in English because the sad truth is that I have never been equipped to express myself as expansively in any other language. Some of us were fortunate to have parents who insisted on speaking indigenous tongues in the home, who fostered firm beliefs in the love for self, but many weren’t and besides what chance did any of us have against the strong current of society. The state of indigenous languages in schools or tertiary institutions is pretty pathetic. I am with that school of thought that believes that language goes further than just communication, that it extends to a sense of belonging somewhere and more than that, a sense of pride in that somewhere. Languages come with their own unique way of thinking and way of living. It’s not just the words we lose, but the culture and heritage that comes with it. When languages die, whole peoples die and everything they have to offer to society at large.

Some will go back and try relearn what has been forgotten, some will fight for textbooks to be translated, those with a little more power than most might change a street name or two, those with a little less power and ingenuity will change their English names to African names and others will buy Dashiki’s. But the ugly reality is that none of that will ever be enough, those African countries that won their freedom years before us made the same futile attempts and look how colonialist languages rule their tongues still. It is sad but true, unless something drastic is done, something radical, something absolutely insane, African languages will one day become some arbitrary subject offered at universities, studied only by the eccentric bead lover and a few curious others.

(The real) Kopano Matlwa