The case for a common national language

Saturday, 2 December 1995

The SABC's new language policy for TV may be the best thing the corporation has done so far...

I WAS overtaking a truck on the R610 near Margate on Sunday evening when I came across a signboard advertising 10177 as the emergency number for police and ambulances. Our national language policy came to mind. Picture yourself making an emergency call in the new South Africa:

"Hello and welcome to the new South Africa emergency hotline. For Afrikaans, press 1, for English, press 2. For isiNdebele, press 3. For Sesotho sa Leboa, press 4. For Sesotho, press 5. For siSwati, press 6. For Xitsonga, press 7. For Setswana, press 8. For Tshivenda, press 9. For isiXhosa, press 0. For isiZulu..."

My train of thought derailed at that point because we were out of numbers for Zulu. But that was okay, I reasoned, since Ulundi and Pretoria would be unlikely to agree who should control such a service.

I'd had a rather long discussion earlier that day with a visiting Nigerian political scientist. He had been comparing travel through KwaZulu Natal with his home country and had decided that we are sorely deficient in our use of English as a second language.

"About 60% of Nigerians are able to speak English well enough to be able to give directions," he said. "Maybe it's only pidgin, and maybe their grammar is all wrong, but they can communicate."

But in his travels through KZN, he had come across mainly blank stares, or responses in Zulu when talking to fellow black Africans.

"Maybe they thought I was Zulu myself and trying to be funny," he mused. "The thing is that if you want your country to be competing in a first world market, the first thing you need to do is to make sure that your people can communicate effectively with the rest of the world."

Unfortunately, language has always been a divider rather than a bridge in this country, I told him.

For instance, many of us in KZN who know and understand Afrikaans very well refuse to speak the language because we've resented having it forced upon us for so many years.

Then there's the distasteful use of fanagalo. The handful of Zulu words that survive the transmogrification are generally used in the crudest possible manner, completely insulting Zulu norms of respect and dignity.

Many of us who speak Indian languages still drop insults in those languages into the middle of conversations, mainly with white managers. Cheeky bastards smile ingratiatingly as they do so too.

But then I've known South African Italians to pull the same stunt on me. Poor sods are always completely floored when I respond in kind. They never expect a koelie to speak their tongue.

We need a uniform national language, and that language should be English, Cape academic Dr. Neville Alexander said to a predominantly black consciousness gathering at the National Forum more than 10 years ago.

He was greeted with scepticism and scorn. The very arguments used by Afrikaners today about protecting cultural identity and heritage were used as vociferously then.

I visited Amsterdam two months ago for IFRA, the annual European trade show for the printing industry. I was struck by the ease at which nearly all the natives hopped effortlessly between languages.

One waitress at the convention centre restaurant spoke Dutch, German, French, Italian, English, and some Swedish. She was not unique. Everyone I met was bilingual. Most were trilingual.

The Dutch were not alone in their multilingualism. The Germans and Scandinavians held their own easily, presenting their products with flair in most European languages. Amid these northern Europeans, the English, French, and Italian visitors wandered around in a monolingual wilderness.

Giving Afrikaans the same status as other ethnic languages on TV levels the playing field. The high percentage of multilingual programming encourages exposure to other languages without effort. Using English as a bridging language will also open this country to the rest of the world. Compulsory trilingual education for schools should do the rest.

Should the Brits feel smug that they conquered the world with their language? Heh! English today is defined more by Salman Rushdie than by the Queen.

And those who delight in having Kirk and Spock gallop across the galaxy would do well to remember that without Afrikaans, there would be no Star Trek.