Indigenous languages face extinction

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EIGHT months after Zimbabwe’s new Constitution was made law, efforts to harmonise pieces of legislation like the Education Act with the new charter have been nil although there are promises that it will soon be done.

Veneranda Langa

Among the different sectors affected by this inaction are indigenous languages, which according to Unesco, face extinction if policies are not crafted soon to make them official languages that can be used for learning at schools, as government language, and also as languages in commerce and industry.

There are, however, a few institutions, like the Parliament of Zimbabwe that have allowed the use of Shona or Ndebele in debate if an MP felt they can effectively express themselves in indigenous languages as opposed to the Queen’s language — and what often happens is that their discourse is then translated into English for the sake of Hansard reports.

However, it is now imperative for Parliament to ensure all institutions follow suit to ensure even those people who are not competent in English can contribute in developing the country by starting to align legislation with what is envisaged in the new Constitution to ensure Zimbabwe’s indigenous languages are safeguarded and saved from extinction.

The Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No 20) recognises 16 languages as official languages as opposed to the previous one where only English, Shona and Ndebele were the official languages depending on the province where one resided.

Chapter 1:6 (1) of the charter reads; “The following languages, namely Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, and Xhosa, are the officially-recognised languages of Zimbabwe.

It continues in (2) “An Act of Parliament may prescribe other languages as officially recognised languages and may prescribe languages of record.

(3) The State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must:
(a) Ensure that all officially recognised languages are treated equitably; and
(b) Take into account the language preferences of people affected by government measures or communications.”
In (4) the new Constitution further stipulates that, “the state must promote and advance the use of all languages used in Zimbabwe, including sign language, and must create conditions for the development of those languages.

According to Primary and Secondary Education ministry principal director for Infant Education Psychological Services and Special Needs Education Kwazanayi Nyanungo, studies by the Nziramasanga Commission of 1999 recommended there should be the upholding of language rights in the Zimbabwe education curriculum, adding it should start from infant education.

“In response to the Nziramasanga Commission report the ministry has recommended quality education from the earliest possible stage of five years when a child’s vocabulary will be about 10 000 words or more and it is an important factor in the design of the education curriculum for infant education,” said Nyanungo.

“The educational, technical, cultural and spiritual levels of Zimbabweans could be raised if instruction is given in their mother tongue.  The Education Act which is currently under review for aligning with the new constitution does mention languages in section 55 (11) where it says Shona, Ndebele and English should be taught in all primary schools from Grade Zero to grade three.  The same Act reads prior to the fourth grade either of languages, English, Shona and Ndebele can be used as a medium of instruction depending on which language is commonly spoken or understood by pupils,” she said.
Nyanungo also revealed statistics on 2012 Grade Seven results proved that students performed well in Shona and Ndebele, but badly in subjects like Maths, General Paper and others which were taught in English.

Interpretations of the graph by Nyanungo were that no province performed below 53, 19% in indigenous languages.

“It is because English, Maths and General Paper are taught in English and if a student’s competence in English is not so strong, it means the likelihood of passing subjects learnt in English was very low.  If they were taught those subjects in Shona or Ndebele they could have passed the language,” she said.

However, even if Zimbabwe were to pass legislation to ensure all other 16 languages now declared official were examinable at school as stipulated by the Constitution, the biggest hassle would be the development of learning materials, books, especially Braille and sign language materials.

“Sign language was also documented in the Nziramasanga Commission report as a living language of the deaf.  We now need instructional material starting from pre-formal education, pre-language, pre-numbers, pre-technical education and pre-scientific education.

We need to strengthen the link between language and cultural heritage to foster linguistic pride and also begin to start our own social networks (for example 263 chat) in our own languages to promote them,” she said.

According to UNDP Communications Assistant Anesu Freddy, indigenous languages were severely threatened by social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others where Zimbabweans preferred to chat in English instead of in their mother tongue.

He, however, said there were some opportunities that could be derived from use of social media to promote language, for instance, the Shona drama SabhukuVharazipi which was recently posted on social media portal You Tube and had more than 150 000 hits.

“We can embrace social media and start using social network channels to promote use of indigenous languages by sending messages in text form, pictures, and videos in our local languages.  The problem in Zimbabwe is that we do not have websites in Shona, videos, or social network sites whose text is in Shona.  There is need to promote these,” Freddy said.

According to a Sadc report on indigenous languages based on an international conference in Kenya which was sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, about 90% of the world’s languages could die this century with the valuable knowledge, culture and customs embedded in them gone forever.

The document entitled Indigenous languages face extinction reads, “the traditional knowledge at threat includes secrets of how to manage habitats and the land in environmentally sustainable ways passed down by word of mouth over many generations.

“Studies carried out estimate that there are 5 000 to 7 000 spoken languages in the world, of which 4 000 to 5 000 are classified as minority languages.  More than 2 500 of these are in immediate danger of extinction and many more are already losing their natural link, 32% of these being African,” the report read.

National University of Science and Technology researcher Dr Lawton Hikwa was also quoted in a Panorama Magazine article Overcoming Colonial Alienation of Indigenous Languages:  Part II as having said about the Zimbabwean situation, “indigenous languages provide a storage system for the collective memory of society and influences perception and the way we view reality.  Therefore, language aids knowledge, identification and recall.”

But, why do many Zimbabweans nowadays prefer to speak in English as opposed to their mother tongues?

Some have even been labelled masalads those pretending not to understand their mother tongue and for pronouncing English words through their noses just like how the white people whose native language is English speak.

A senior lecturer in the department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe Dr Michias Musiyiwa said the problem was based on three issues; negative attitudes by society, colonial legacies and policies as well as language myths.

Attitudes by society
DR Michias Musiyiwa a senior lecturer in the department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe said Zimbabwe was a multi-linguistic country as compared to countries like Botswana which are mono-linguistic.

“During the colonial era, it was prestigious to speak in English which was the language of the royal family.  We had highly educated people who could speak English so fluently that they were even better than the native speakers themselves.  So, English became the chosen tongue and by implication it meant that indigenous languages had a lower status.

Parents are also to blame because they want their children to learn the language of the Queen and they celebrate when their children speak well in English,” he said.

Musiyiwa said most negative attitudes towards indigenous languages were due to that European colonialists wanted their culture to be imitated resulting in Lusophone and Francophone countries like Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo trading their indigenous languages for Portuguese and French.

Colonial legacies, policies

DR Michias Musiyiwa said these were problems mostly encountered at schools inasfar as the teaching of indigenous languages was concerned and were incorporated into the education system through language policies that recognised English as the language of government, commerce and industry.

“Some of the negative attitudes towards indigenous languages were inherited from a colonial legacy where policies stipulated English was the language of education, business and government. Once English had that status it meant it had a higher status than indigenous languages as they were not officially designated with that status.

“After independence, African governments thought it was easier to maintain a colonial language policy and they made colonial languages their official languages. It has not been easy for African countries to take one mother tongue to declare it a national language.”

He said an example was Nigeria which had more than 100 languages and if any of those languages was declared a national language, it would create problems.

“Once one says a language is now an official language like what is stipulated by the new constitution of Zimbabwe, it means those languages can be used in education, by the judiciary, in business, industry and commerce and by government.”

However, Musiyiwa said there was one good thing that the colonialists brought with them to Africa.

“We do not want to criticise the Europeans much because they are the ones who created orthographies and writing systems in indigenous languages. They studied our languages and came up with the phonetics.”

Myths associated with indigenous languages
There are myths concerning English and Shona and one of them is the prestige English is given as the Queen’s language.

“We often hear people saying ‘chakabvanengarava’ (it was shipped) when referring to English language and prestige is automatically bestowed on it. English was also considered “the chosen tongue” and by implication it meant there was stigma attached to other indigenous languages that were not chosen and they had a lower status. It means that languages (indigenous) then get stigmatised when they are used in society,” said Musiyiwa.

He said there was need to fight language stigma in the same way stigma associated with HIV/Aids had been tackled.

“These myths have been incorporated into the school curriculum and it does not give equal weight to the teaching of indigenous languages as compared to the teaching of English. Students and teachers spend a long time studying the structure of language instead of how to communicate effectively using indigenous languages. Why not study literature and poetry in indigenous languages? We should begin to develop children’s books in indigenous languages, have cartoons in indigenous languages and even comics and picture stories so that our children learn the correct use of indigenous languages at an early age,” he said.

On February 19, the world celebrated the International Mother Language Day 2014. In Zimbabwe the commemorations were held at the United Nations Information Centre, and UNESCO director Professor Luc Rukingana said of the 7 000 indigenous world languages, more than 50% were already threatened by extinction.