Bilingual and Beyond

There is little doubt that the “official language” issue has become a crucial topic on a multinational scale.  Francophone and Anglophone education distinctions in Canada, the passage of “English Only” laws across the United States, and the constituency of the monolingual and bilingual capitals within the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde in Belgium represent just a few examples of language debates that have received a great amount of international attention in recent years.  Language issues have increasingly arisen on the African continent as well.  Although the Republic of South Africa is known to many as the greatest African success story as a result of its tremendous progress on the democracy and innovation fronts, it is evident that racial and socio-economic issues are still prevalent and, correspondingly, national language concerns continue to persist.

The South African government currently recognizes eleven official languages, but many question the overall practicality or feasibility of ensuring that all of these languages have equal status.  I ultimately support the founding provisions on language in the South African Constitution because the current recognition of eleven official languages allows the government to acknowledge and appreciate the value of indigenous languages while simultaneously establishing the foundations for a thriving multilingual society.

Although many may assert that the official acknowledgement of such a large number of languages would only lead to added confusion in the education and professional sectors due to the creation of some form of Tower of Babel phenomenon, this is especially not the case in most urban areas, as many speakers of indigenous African languages became fluent in English and/or Afrikaans during school and can therefore communicate with a variety of people in the professional world without sacrificing their mother tongue languages.  In a nation where the government enforced English and Afrikaans language education in their Bantu Education policy less than 60 years ago, it seems preferable that the new Republic of South Africa would seek to recognize and appreciate the indigenous languages that make this country so diverse.  Reversing the effects of the apartheid will no doubt prove a difficult, if not impossible, goal to achieve.  Allowing individuals to express themselves in their mother tongue languages represents one step in the right direction toward national equality in the multilingual world.

Despite progressive constitutional legislation efforts, one must admit that the transition to a multilingual nation in South Africa has not been an entirely smooth one.  Although English remains the most common language in the commercial and professional world, the 2001 census reports that only 8.2% of the population consists of native English speakers, and isiZulu is the mother tongue of 23.8% of the population.  Thus, while isiZulu represents the lingua franca of 70% of the population, it is English, the fifth most spoken home language, that is used by most professional urban dwellers and is a language requirement for tertiary education.  Thus, while students may not be forced to study in English during their early years of schooling, it is no doubt highly encouraged that they do learn the language at some point in order to better thrive in the professional world.  This being said, M.J. Probyn of Rhodes University in Grahamstown reports that 80% of students in the African township and rural schools “have little exposure to English outside the classroom apart from television and popular music”[1].  In this sense, one may assume that there is a growing fear that rural students will be at a professional disadvantage if they choose to receive instruction solely in their mother tongue languages.

While there are many obstacles to overcome, one should not doubt the possibility for multilingualism to flourish in South Africa.  Richard Ruiz offers a way for one to see language as a problem (segregation vs. assimilation ideology), a right (society of constitutional equality), or a resource (functional and interdependent coexistence of communities and languages).  South Africa can implement the “language as a resource” outlook within its society by ensuring that students are well equipped to converse proficiently in their home language and successfully enter the tertiary education or professional world.  This will naturally mean providing sufficient government services and documents in all official languages (relative to the community demographics), in addition to an adequate number of teachers who are fluent in the languages that the students wish to study.  Furthermore, learning English, Afrikaans, or another ex-colonizer language in school should not be viewed necessarily as an extension of the apartheid regime, as South Africa can learn to embrace multilingualism as a part of its national identity.

 As South Africa appears to be embracing multilingualism, many American states are considering the adoption of English as the official language.  One organization that is a proponent of this movement, U.S. English, affirms that official English would only require that official legislation be documented in English.  While English has been declared the official language in 31 states, the American Civil Liberties Union questions the constitutionality of “English Only” laws that seem to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment.  Secondly, official language legislation seems a bit unnecessary in a nation where 96% of citizens are fluent in English and 98% of those surveyed among the growing Latino community find it essential that their children learn English.  If the U.S. has been able to succeed for hundreds of years without declaring an official language, it seems frivolous to insist on adopting one now when the number of English speakers is not on the rapid decline.  The U.S. can learn from South Africa, a nation with truly pertinent language concerns, that ESL and bilingual education programs can only help to develop a better-educated professional society.

In a world where language is at the forefront of countless international political debates, it has become increasingly important for the young people of today to embrace multilingualism and diversity.  Learning other languages not only helps one to communicate with a larger number of people, but it also introduces one to unique cultures.  By fostering national communities that encourage multilingual education and development, it is possible that countries like the South Africa and the United States can pave the way for a world of greater equality and diversity.


[1] Most of Probyn’s research on this study was conducted at schools within the Eastern Cape.

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