11 Official Languages, Countless Dialects and Variations

11 Official Languages, Countless Dialects and Variations

South Africa is blessed with 11 official languages. This does not include the countless other languages spoken by South African citizens nor the different dialects of these 11 official languages. One thing which we are all aware of is the fact that the go to language in South Africa is English due to the fact that it is the language which most of the rainbow nation understands. It is therefore also the most dominant and used medium of academic instruction, from pre-school to tertiary education.

Recently the call for home language education has gained momentum and support. The countless benefits of such an approach is broadcasted everywhere. The sources which are cited are all credible and therefore these benefits are real and not something which is made up. The problem is that these results and findings are only based on research which was done inside of a classroom where a child receives a lesson in his home language. Deeper issues are not being investigated and reported on.

I recently had the privilege to lecture to a group of second year BEd degree students at The University of Pretoria’s Groenkloof Campus. The lecture was on the Incremental Introduction of African Languages Policy which was proposed by The Department of Education. This policy focuses on incrementally introducing an African language into the schooling system. During the lecture one of the students aired her concern with this policy and it was something which not even I thought of. She is a Xhosa and her concern is that this policy only promotes the use of Xhosa in its purest form and does not acknowledge the eight different dialects which she knows about.

This got me thinking. How many other languages are there, which also has different dialects? Dialects which are not regarded or acknowledged as official languages. The speakers of these dialects feel neglected and unimportant due to this. As an Afrikaans speaking individual I can relate to this matter by thinking about the Afrikaans speaking individuals in the Western Cape. Even though we all speak Afrikaans, we speak it differently, even our accents differ.

In the formal schooling system we only cater for the official Afrikaans language and all of its rules, the do’s and the don’ts as contained in all of its manuals. We do not acknowledge or consider those who speak Afrikaans in its Western Cape dialect. We force these individuals to conform to the nationally accepted form of Afrikaans. Afrikaans in its purest form. A language which those who speak a different dialect of Afrikaans do not fully comprehend or understand.

What I am getting at is that this student has a valid point. As a speaker of a dialect of isiXhosa she feels marginalised, unimportant and rejected because her home language is not regarded as an official language. I am sure there are a number of other individuals, who also speak a different dialect of an official language who shares this sentiment.

This raises the question whether or not is possible, viable or wise to expand our list of official languages to include all the different dialects of each language. Just think about this for a moment we currently have 11 official languages, this student mentioned that she is aware of eight different dialects of isiXhosa and we take the two dialects of Afrikaans, then we already expanded our list to 21 official languages. If we do this then we will include everyone’s home language as an official language, thereby granting everyone and their language a rightful place on the list of official languages.

This will bring about a greater sense of cohesion and acceptance but it will also create a whole lot of new issues and problems to deal with. One of these issues will inevitably be the matter of home language education. Also bear in mind that South African is full of migrants, legal and illegal. With a great number of migrants given South African citizenship, citizens who also enjoy the provisions of education in their home language as contained in the constitution. Suddenly the number of languages which should be included in the list of official languages has increased exponentially. Making the matter of home language education an even bigger challenge to deal with. The matter of home language education and its achievability will be explored in the next article.

For now, enjoy your language. Whatever the dialect it is you use. All dialects are important, treasured and cherished by its speakers even if it does not feature on the list of official languages.  

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