The writer says parents prejudices, expressed through preventing their children from learning other languages, has prevented South Africans from learning from the literary traditions and wisdom of other groups in the country. Picture: Puri Devjee

At long last the mainstream English medium papers have seen the light. I was delivered the Sunday Times in Zulu last weekend and though I am shamefully illiterate in the language, I was delighted at the thought that the newspaper would now be reaching masses of people to whom English is as foreign as Zulu is to me.

While illiteracy is a major crisis in SA today, compromising the development of a vibrant democracy, many South Africans are quite knowledgeable and literate in their own language.

Sociolinguistically we are rich in our diversity.

Rajend Mesthrie in his book Language and Social History cites the example: “My father’s home language was Swazi and my mother’s was Tswana. But as I grew up in a Zulu-speaking area we used mainly Zulu and Swazi at home. But from my mother’s side I also learnt Tswana well. In my high school I came in contact with lots of Sotho and Tswana students so I can speak these two languages well. And of course I know English and Afrikaans. With my friends I also use Tsotsitaal.”

Despite the diversity of spoken languages the SA language profile is a hierarchical one with English dominant in commerce, higher education, industry and the government.

In the recent past Afrikaans was the dominant language in the public service, police, army, navy and the government. Language, like religion, is a highly divisive and emotive subject. Nations have been locked into civil war on account of it. The French and English Canadians, the Tamil and Sinhalese Sri Lankans and the English, Welsh and Scots come easily to mind.

On the home front, black schoolchildren rioted against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in 1976 in the Soweto uprising. In post- apartheid SA, language and cultural sensitivity are still very much alive.

Language brings pride to its people as it is the vehicle of their composite identity. Yet we continue to negate the value of each other’s language in a hierarchy of superiority and cultural hegemony.

Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent in India, recalls how during the British rule the Indian servants posed a threat to their employees’ children. Unlike Rudyard Kipling who had an Indian nanny and spoke Hindustani before learning English, Tully was raised strictly by an English nanny who slapped him for learning to count in Hindustani from the driver.

“That’s the servants’ language, not yours,” she snapped.

All of this points to lost opportunities that we have experienced in raising our children with black nannies without ever learning to speak an African language. So great was the prejudice that we expected a generation of people to create a “fanagalo” language to suit our limited and jaundiced minds.

The loss was ours.

And in doing so we effectively shut our hearts and minds to the valuable treasures embedded in each other’s culture, tradition, and literary wisdom.

Wangari Maathai, the late Kenyan Nobel Peace prize winner, told a poignant story of her early schooling under the Catholic nuns whom she loved and cherished for their dedication to their pupils.

However, they displayed some idiosyncrasies that could easily be translated into acts of cultural chauvinism.

To prevent pupils from reverting to their native languages the nuns pinned a button on the deviant ones which read: “I am stupid, I am speaking my mother tongue”.

While the system worked in promoting English, in retrospect she says: “It introduced us to the world of undermining our self-confidence and the trivialisation of anything African.”

As children we were raised to equate our language with the sweetness of mothers’ milk and if we dared to speak a foreign tongue within the precincts of the home we would be chastised for drinking the dog’s milk.

Culture and language were inextricably bound and many of us had to learn our mother tongue even before we could speak the foreign one which could open new doors and opportunities for employment. Community-funded vernacular schools became the order of the day and we were coaxed, cajoled and even coerced to attend classes after English school.

The benefits of this co-curricular activity could be seen in the speed with which the Gujarati-speaking children attacked their arithmetical problems, having learnt to count in the vernacular way ahead of their peers. At another level the mother tongue served the function of empowering and binding a community together.

In the 21st century we cannot ignore the importance of approaching the post-modernist world armed with the knowledge that we are a global family and that we have to be able to communicate with the rest of the world.

Communication is perhaps as vital as cultural pride and multilingualism is the order of the day.

Inevitably, the choice of the languages we wish to learn should be determined by economic and social mobility and location.

l Devi Rajab is a psychologist.