This adaptation to Orwellian philosophy quite ardently poses a critical question: “Why is English seen as far more important than my home language?”

Although the most common language spoken as a first language by South Africans is Zulu (23 percent), followed by Xhosa (16 percent), and Afrikaans (14 percent), English is still the fourth most common first language in SA (9.6%).

Most worryingly however is that English is understood in most urban areas and is the dominant language in government and the media; the most important sectors that the masses look towards for direction and insight.

South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with a population of 51.7 million, and to assume that every one of its citizens should adopt English as the standard language, is not the most fair situation to be in.

TYI members, namely Jane Folodi (22)  better known as ‘Nosipho’ and Richelle Neethling (18) discuss the complexities of SA languages and the crisis that they face when transitioning from their home language to English.

Most of us assume that English is what we ought to communicate in but that very assumption compromises our linguistic human rights.

They discuss the seemingly unfair aspect of Euro-languages been given first preference when ultimately home languages should be regarded as just as important.

In response to the honest accounts provided by TYI members, Professor Dan Wylie from Rhodes University gives us further insight into the complexity of South Africa’s linguistic climate.

We invite you to email us your response/ story with regards to your battle with language/s and the stress placed upon you in a work environment to communicate only in English.

1. What is your home language?

2. Would you rather speak in your mother tongue or in English? Explain.

Professor Dan Wylie: Minority languages are under threat worldwide; in very few cases have a combination of devoted individuals and government support prevented extinction.

One way is by government actively funding and publishing art-forms in those languages; at present government funding for the arts is derisory.

3. What is the first non-English word that you were taught and the meaning of it?

Do you think that speakers of most languages do not have their linguistic human rights respected?

Professor Dan Wylie: There is always behind this kind of question an assumption of who is doing or not doing the respecting, i.e. it is a covert attack on ‘white’ disrespect for ‘indigenous’ languages. Such disrespect exists, of course, but so does the opposite.

Any why (say) should Xhosa speakers ever bother with whether non-Xhosa people respect them or not? There are too many residues of colonial cringes on both sides of that ugly binary. I suspect that the rhetoric of ‘human rights’ is a distraction which gets us entangled in nostalgic or idealistic arguments about ‘pure’ languages in the past or putative future, instead of being pragmatic and flexible about our present.

4. Do you dream in your home language or in English?

Where do we draw the line when it comes to teaching students in English?

Professor Dan Wylie: There is no one line or solution: different communities in different socio-political situations will have to find their way through this.  

In my view, bi or even tri-lingual training from the get-go is educationally the only route – but the chances of government ever being able to supply adequate teachers and materials is next to zero. It is up to parents and individuals.

5. Does not speaking in your mother tongue limit your ability to express yourself? Give us an example.

What do you find particularly important in the history of South African Languages?

Professor Dan Wylie: The creation of a nation-state, initially forged and dominated by imperial settlers and subsequent governments, generating an almost insoluble tension between linguistically “uniting the nation” and preserving ethno-linguistic identities on the smaller scale.  

Historically, the latter almost always lose, or are retained only to the extent that they remain relatively isolated from the world – and in the “developmental state” that isolation is all but impossible.

Related Article: Things I did not learn at school…

6. What are the reactions you receive from people who have English as their home language when you communicate in your mother tongue?

Did you know?

While witnesses and accused persons can testify in one of the eleven official languages and can rely on the services of a translator when doing so, lawyers, magistrates and judges may speak only English and Afrikaans?

This happens even when all the parties before the court speaks a first language other than English or Afrikaans.

7. What do you think the language of the future will be?

Professor Dan Wylie: Only one? There will always be many, and even a dominant world language is constantly evolving; it may not even be recognisable as ‘English’ in a hundred years.

One would be daft to make a prediction!

About Jane Folodi aka. Nosipho (22)

Born in 1995, in Gauteng.
Love travelling and interacting with different cultures.
I also have a sharp eye for art.
I don’t use my Instagram for uploading perfect pictures. It is my own archive of history and it’s also a way of communicating.

About Richelle Neethling (19)

There is a difference between having a life, and living.

A post shared by Richelle Neethling (@richelleneethling) on

Born in 1998, in Johannesburg.
Love reading books about history and culture.
I absolutely live for my dog. He’s like my own baby. I’ve also recently discovered that I enjoy sipping on amarula (a lot).  

About Professor Dan Wylie:

At the institutional level he is a Member of the Faculty of Humanities and served on the Higher Degrees Committee between 2007 and 2010.

He has also been strongly involved in various community projects over the years, including the iKhonco and GADRA outreach programmes between 1991 and 1995.

He is an editorial board member of the journals Scrutiny2, Current Writing, and English in Africa. From 2003 to 2005 he was the Poetry judge for the Grahamstown Eisteddfod, attended the ADC Assessment course in 2005 and the Introductory Xhosa course in 2006.

He has given various public and invited lectures on Shaka, elephants and other aspects of his research at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee; the Hilton Festival, Pietermaritzburg and several Schools’ Festivals.

Given his interest in the environment and its interface with literature, Dan is particularly active in issues of the environment.

He has been on the Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA (WESSA) Grahamstown committee since 2004 and is a regular contributor to environmental columns and articles in local papers.

He is also the founder of the Literature & Ecology Colloquium which, since its inception in 2004, has a book and three special journal issues in Current Writing and Alternation to its credit.

Videographer: Zuhaa Isaacs

Produced by TYI

Categories: Education