Language lessons from Jacob Zuma

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While I have always maintained that there is a clear distinction between native religions and native cultures, I have also always argued that no man is ever without culture. We either grow ours or we leave it to promote someone else’s. This is as true with language as it is with culture.

Now with that said, I think whoever will be the next President of South Africa should use their own mother tongue as their primary language for oral and written communication – both locally and internationally.

It is constitutional for a Head of State to do so and the practice is globally acceptable.

A South African president is not obliged to speak English when addressing South Africans, even though English has been the language of choice. To date, all the people who have presided as our national leaders – both from the new and old South Africa have been somewhat courteous in this regard that they have used English as a medium – sometimes to their own demise, because English is to some a third or a fourth language.

For example, President Zuma is most fluent and most articulate in Zulu, more than he is in English. But his choice to speak English does not always favour him. Even with his numeral deficiency – language is the challenge because he reads numbers well in isiZulu. This, by the way, is something I feel his speech writer is to blame for. But none the less, that’s a topic for another day.

We are in 2017, so I won’t even mention our legacy of English and Afrikaans being used as instruments to measure the intelligence and literacy levels of non-English and non-Afrikaans speakers; the backward mindedness of assessing IQ through language had nothing to do with communication but it was about increasing the proximity to the Afrikaans and English’s culture of origin.

That is why even today in South Africa any thought near West is still perceived the best. Any thought near East is exotic and intelligent. Any thought near South is shunned. But again that’s a thought for another day.

The exercise of elevating the use of one’s mother tongue in the presidential office will benefit South Africans in many ways both nationally and internationally.

Nationally: In the past language was used to as an instrument to carry out division amongst races, cultures, and classes of people in our country. It was also a purging instrument against many Africans. But now the same African languages – Afrikaans included – have the opportunity to be used as instruments to promote cultural integration and societal integration.

The use of mother tongues in the presidential office will also help to break-down stereotypes against the speakers of the languages. For example, An Afrikaans speaking white male is more likely to be viewed as racist. An English speaking white male is more likely to be perceived as culturally arrogant. A Zulu speaking black male is more likely to be perceived as stubborn or violent. Whereas a Xhosa speaking male would be perceived as cunning. These stereotypes aren’t always true neither are they in many instances the actual representation of the cultures. They are as factual as old wives stories.

Language comes with cultural nuances and South Africa is blessed with a blend of cultures. So when our languages are spoken from the Head of State’s office, interest in learning and developing those cultures grows.

The economic benefits of using mother tongues in the President’s office.

New jobs in linguistics would be created and the status of existing jobs will be elevated. A typical example to learn from would be the fact that the Afrikaans language carries more financial value than any Nguni language in South Africa. Note I said the language has more financial value, not the people who speak the language or the race of origin.

You find more literature and academic material in Afrikaans more than in any Nguni language. The Afrikaans brand has more weight as well. Afrikaans is the second “professional” business language in South Africa after English. A non-English or non-Afrikaans speaking person can’t trade with an Afrikaans or English speaking person in South Africa, without feeling the barrier. Thus many mutually beneficial opportunities are missed as a result of avoiding the awkwardness.

Imagine if all our other official languages were elevated to “acceptable business language”, as well. In some countries in Africa and Europe, you have to know the native language in order to make real business with the locals. Why? Because the language in itself is access to trade and promotes industries associated with its culture of origin. Language is a powerful business instrument, e.g French language and wine, Afrikaans and biltong and Zulu with the Zulu maiden Reed dance (yes, the Reed dance pays locals through tourism) but it could do more if the language of the people was as elevated as the events surrounding their culture.

Now imagine if other languages were given their status as well. The status of existing jobs such translation and interpretation would gradually elevate, as more people would soon be comfortable in demanding products and services in their own languages – including education and training. But apart from trade through our languages, we have the opportunity to extend friendships with one another.

Internationally, South Africa is one of the many African countries which do not place value on their own native languages. Our perception of modernization is going West or East and not towards ourselves and what we can offer the world. That’s why we have not bothered to present our languages to an international audience – an international audience by the way that is very interested in learning about our languages and their cultures of origin. Overseas counterparts are not interested in hearing how well we speak their languages and how well we know about their cultures. That is obviously important but not as important as expressing confidence and pride in the knowledge of self.

Imagine if a South African President decided to speak Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans or any of our eleven official languages at a meeting of the United Nations Assembly for example. The status of that language and of his country would gain immediate recognition. The challenge is that, in Africa, we perceive English as the best medium to articulate intellectual thoughts.

While other countries are comfortable with what they have an example would again be French, English, and Portuguese from Europe. And now China is elevating Mandarin as well.

The monetary value of all the cultural aspects associated with those languages increases once the native speakers take pride in themselves.




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