For all intents and purposes, many of South Africa’s indigenous languages are listed among the world’s most endangered languages. What this means in simple terms is that many of our languages will most likely become extinct in the near future. This, despite the fact we are the majority in this country, yet our majority languages face the danger of disappearing because people elevate English at the expense of their own languages.
I used to think it ridiculous to think that our languages can die! But having been involved in several language projects, I am more than alarmed at the status of our languages.
Many African intellectuals have given us many reasons why the state of affairs, not forgetting that they have not included themselves as the primary proponents of our dying languages because to them English is status. Many of these intellectuals cannot even construct a full sentence in their mother tongue.
There have been a number of initiatives aimed at improving the status and use of African languages, yet many of these projects have failed simply because African people see no value in their own languages. They would rather struggle to express themselves in a foreign language.
Recently, I was asked to give a basic translation into any South African language of my choosing. While I take pride in my language competence and consider myself an expert in my own language, I was reminded of how shameful our people are. When efforts like these come our way, many people, instead of being honest to say they are not equipped to translate to our languages, will happily give substandard work! These are people who themselves hardly speak the language, yet they find it normal to translate into a language they do not speak. This trend is the same with professional translators. While many may have degrees in translation and communication, many simply just translate nonsense.
The result is software that is unusable. I am one of the few people in South Africa who use software in my language, but the standard and quality of translated software is pathetic. This unfortunately has the negative effect that many people end up staying away from using software in their own languages. I have used translated software that even I could not make sense of what was being said in the translations.
I am left wanting to ask, particularly of African intellectuals and professional translators, have we lost all integrity that we cannot tell the truth about our ability to speak (or lack thereof) our languages? We rather produce horrible work that no one will ever use?
Unfortunately, language usage goes hand in hand with its growth and development. A language that is being actively used will grow and develop, and the opposite is true.
Many organisations have invested in translations but many remain unused. Banks (ATMs), cell phones, call centres and software have been provided in our languages, yet my people continue to choose English as the de facto standard of communication. Could it be the case that Africans have not realised that they are free? They continue to act like they did during apartheid days where English and Afrikaans were forced upon them. The result is that many companies have withdrawn translations. Standard Bank was the first bank to pull out the translation at their ATM machines, leaving only English, isiZulu and Afrikaans. I am yet to meet an African who has complained about this.
I watch in horror at Facebook status updates by South Africans. People would rather use broken and totally ungrammatical language simple in the quest to use English than communicate in a language they are comfortable with and are competent in. Imagine what the impact of blogging and chatting in your mother tongue has on language development? The reason companies like Google will not recognise our languages is because we do not use our languages significantly enough online to force them to recognise us. If you search for a word on Google in your languages, chances are it will come back with nonsense results in English and other European languages. As an African, are you happy with that?
As you sit and are about to tell me that you couldn’t be bothered about your language, and making claims how English is an international language, remember that your language in endangered. It will soon disappear from the face of this earth, while you could have done something about it. Soon you may lose all your ability to express yourself naturally, because when your language dies, you must adopt somebody else’s.
- By Fezekile Futhwa