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Afrikaans is being pushed to the sidelines by the tyrannical march of the English language, writes Andries Visagie.
Cape Town - One of the surprise findings of the 2011 census was that the number of mother tongue speakers of Afrikaans has increased by no fewer than 800 000 individuals since the previous census. Afrikaans seems to be thriving as the third largest mother tongue spoken in South Africa and as a popular language of communication in Namibia.
Optimism about the position of Afrikaans seems to be vindicated by a lucrative market for Afrikaans publications. The loyalty of Afrikaans readers to books published in their mother tongue is often a source of envy for publishing houses that focus on publications in other languages.
Yet the Afrikaans-speaking community has to come to grips not only with internal divisions but also with a seemingly never-ending tendency among business and public institutions to reduce the sectors of society where Afrikaans can be spoken freely.
The question is whether Afrikaans will be able to overcome these challenges and to prosper as a mother tongue.
Many coloured South Africans, who represent more than 50 percent of the total number of Afrikaans first-language speakers, feel marginalised as the Cape dialect of Afrikaans is still reflected inadequately in the standard variety of the language. Here an encouraging sign is the virulent debate sparked by younger coloured commentators and poets, among them Nathan Trantraal and Ronelda Kamfer. Their vocal and widely reported questioning of the legitimacy of Standaardafrikaans suggests that the language commission of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, the body that decides on accepted practice in the language, should revisit their rules yet again.
This should not be done quietly or behind closed doors. Extensive media participation is imperative and the process should be guided by bold decisions about the stakeholders who should serve on the commission in addition to well-communicated changes to acknowledge the different varieties of Afrikaans.
Many coloured speakers of Afrikaans are migrating to English as their language of choice because they feel too far removed from standard Afrikaans as a variant that seems to accommodate mostly white speakers of the language. Reconciliation within the Afrikaans language community is still unfinished business as racial divisions continue to undermine cohesion among the more than 6 million South Africans who regard the language as their mother tongue.
Another reason for general disgruntlement among those who cherish Afrikaans as their own relates to the language policies championed by the state. After many years of little movement to implement constitutional stipulations about language, in particular the necessary promotion of the Nguni and Sotho languages, there are now plans to stimulate the use of these languages. English continues to enjoy massive state support, but, regrettably, there consistently seems to be an acceptable silence when it comes to legislative support for Afrikaans.
As English and the other official languages are prioritised in new language legislation, Afrikaans is often the only language that is expected to slip quietly between the chairs.
Increasingly, the African languages (a term that erroneously excludes Afrikaans) are promoted actively by the various state institutions whereas English remains the language favoured by the government for communication.
Afrikaans is the only official language that is expected to accept benign neglect and regular exclusion in new legislation.
The rationale that informs the reluctance of the ANC government to promote Afrikaans seems to be motivated by the comprehensive state support that was lavished on to Afrikaans in the previous century. The expectation is that Afrikaans should now stand back and settle into a chillier corner of the linguistic landscape. The government does not endear itself to the Afrikaans speaking community as a creeping suspicion takes shape that neglect by the state contains a punitive element.
The discouraging signals sent out by the government about Afrikaans are rapidly picked up by public institutions such as the various state-funded universities. Last year the University of KwaZulu-Natal glibly announced the closure of its Afrikaans department.
Universities that historically looked after Afrikaans as a medium of instruction are under a lot of pressure to embrace English, the darling of the current government.
Until recently gestures to appease lobbyists for the African languages remained largely ineffectual and speakers of the African languages had enough reason to believe that the state was more interested in window dressing about the indigenous languages as it resolutely continued conducting business in English. I remain hopeful that the new awareness about the value of mother tongue education, particularly primary education, will lead to the stimulation of the various South African languages, and that speakers will acquire a new sense of pride in their linguistic heritage.
Research has demonstrated that children learn better in their mother tongues at an early age. Plans within the educational sector to encourage the use of the South African languages in primary schools may improve the performance of pupils and, at the same time, create a new space for these languages to grow and develop.
A language can only thrive if there are many sectors of society where it is used and developed.
* Andries Visagie is a professor of Afrikaans and Dutch literature at the Department of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria. Friday February 21 was marked around the world as International Mother Language Day.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.
The Star Africa Edition