It's Even Tough for the Locals to Learn the Lingo

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), November 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

It's Even Tough for the Locals to Learn the Lingo


TESSA Dowling is known in some parts of South Africa as 'a white woman with a black soul' because, through her self-study language programme company African Voices, she has dedicated her life to teaching Africans their own languages.

To many people, it may seem strange that a nation should have to learn its traditional tongue (or, in the case of South Africa, tongues) but it should be more easily understandable for Ulster-Scots speakers in Northern Ireland.

The Rainbow Nation is home to eleven officially recognised languages, nine of which are most commonly associated with the black population. However, although English and Afrikaans dominate the worlds of business, politics and education, they are the first - or 'home' - languages of only just over 21 per cent of the population with Zulu and Xhosa actually being the most widely spoken (23.9 per cent and 17.7 per cent respectively).

Afrikaans was written into the South African constitution when, during negotiations about the ending of apartheid, the white Afrikaner population stipulated that Afrikaans should continue to be recognised on a par with English (and, to ensure complete equality, the nine 'black' languages were also declared official South African languages).

Post-1994, even the emerging black middle-class adopted the English language, realising that this medium would be infinitely more beneficial in terms of gaining employment.

During South Africa's last 11 years of democracy, debate has risen over the issue of 'mother tongue education'. Supporters of the move towards a more linguistically variable education system argue that teaching in English puts those who don't have English as their first language in an inferior position when it comes to getting good grades at school.

It makes sense. Even those of us with GCSE- level French or German would find the task of, say, maths or science lessons taught solely in those languages much more difficult. And, when you consider that most schoolchildren in South Africa are taught lessons solely in the English language from the age of eight onwards, regardless of their home language (and that, sometimes, even the teachers are not completely fluent in English) the reason for at least some of the poor examination grades in South Africa becomes clear.

The problem is now under analysis and it is planned to make Xhosa a compulsory subject in at least some of the country's schools. …

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