Elevating the Status and to Advance the use of Indigenous Languages: SA National Lexicography Unit and UNESCO briefing; BRRR
16 October 2019
Chairperson: Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC)
Available here once adopted: BRRR 2019
The Committee was briefed by the South African National Lexicography Unit on Elevating the Status to Advance the use of Indigenous Languages. UNESCO also contributed to this briefing. The Committee heard that the legal framework which guided the work of the lexicography units in South Africa came from Constitutional imperatives which were binding to the work of the Unit. It was a constitutional obligation that all languages should be treated equally. The Committee heard that there were nine indigenous language Units that were charged by the Constitution to develop materials to elevate the status and advance the use of those languages. A letter from the Secretary General of UNESCO was read to the Committee. The sentiment the letter conveyed was a message of support for this meeting especially since the United Nations had declared this year as the year of indigenous languages and has prioritised this issue.
Members heard that the Units were currently working on the development of dictionaries in all the official South African languages, exploring the possibility of digitizing books as well as publishing material in braille. The Units had gotten permission from the Deputy Minister to launch this programme by writing letters to all the Members of Parliament together with a poster which featured information about the Units. The Committee was pleased to hear that the campaign had been well received, that there was a close relationship with UNESCO and SADiLAR (South African Digital Language Resources) around the campaign.
Members said that economic activity had a strong influence on the strength of a language. Members asked whether the Units were providing the dictionaries in a braille version as well; if some of these indigenous language dictionaries were being digitized; what was being done to facilitate communication in indigenous languages in the provinces to empower learners; and was it not time to think of a South African language that should be spoken across the board. Members bemoaned the fact that South Africa did not have its own indigenous language other than English which was spoken by everyone.
The Committee felt that Provinces should be able to accommodate a mixture of indigenous languages and that joint meetings with Portfolio Committees, the Departments of Arts and Culture and Higher Education should be held to see how best to move forward in transforming the culture of language in this country. Members were keen to understand how the Units planned to create a platform for young emerging lexicographers, book illustrators and material developers for all the indigenous languages. The Committee wanted it noted that teachers were put under huge pressure by the parents to teach English and there seemed to be no way around this.
Briefing on Elevating the Status and Advancing the use of Indigenous Languages: SA National Lexicography Unit and UNESCO
Mr Terrance Ball, Advisor for language policy implementation: SA National Lexicography, opened the presentation by outlining the legal framework which guided the work of the lexicography units in South Africa. This framework comes from Constitutional imperatives and other government reports and programmes which are binding to the work of the unit. Furthermore, aside from the law, there are serious social issues that one needs to respond to regarding South African (SA) language policies in schools. Mr Ball emphasised that it is a constitutional obligation that all languages must be treated equally.
Mr Ball provided a bit of history on National Lexicography Units (NLUs) in South Africa. Towards the end of 2014, the eleven National Lexicography units met in east London and agreed that they need to work under an overarching umbrella for indigenous languages to speak as one voice. The reason for this was that it was the nine indigenous language units that were charged by the Constitution to develop materials to elevate the status and advance the use of those languages, including the teaching of English to those indigenous language speakers.
A letter from the Secretary General of UNESCO, Mr Carlton Mukwevhu, was read to the Committee. The sentiment the letter conveyed was a message of support for this meeting especially since the United Nations has declared this year as the year of indigenous languages and has prioritised this issue. The South African National Commission for UNESCO also supports this important drive and in particular this meeting.
Mr Ball said that currently members of other lexicography units were busy with programmes around International Dictionary Day. The Minister had also released a press statement where she referred to International Dictionary Day.
The Units are nearing the end of their presentations to each provincial legislature and are hoping to expand the presentations to include the executive and other government departments, particularly the Departments of Social Development, Basic Education and Higher Education. These Units are currently working on the development of dictionaries in all the official South African languages. From the units’ point of view the language policy does not matter as much as the importance of dictionaries as essential learning tools.
The major challenges facing the Units include funding as well as the sheer complexity of working with languages. The Units will be able to start looking at digitizing their books as well as publishing material in braille as their work and coordination with members of the executive expands.
After a documented strategy had been put together, the Units met with the then Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Ms R Mabudafasi, to discuss these ideas. The Units got permission from the Deputy Minister to launch this programme by writing letters to all Members of Parliament together with a poster which featured information about the Units. These posters were distributed to all Members of Parliament and to all provincial legislatures. This was in preparation to display and advertise a range of some of the dictionaries that were available in the committee room.
Kimberley in the Northern Cape was the first legislature that the Units presented to. Because all official languages needed to be treated equally, the Units had to swiftly begin running these programmes with the other indigenous languages in the other provinces.
Letters were sent to the Presidency, Parliament, Legislatures, the Ministers of Arts and Culture, Basic Education and Higher Education, Premier’s offices, and HODs as an attempt to make a bit more of a noise about who these units are, where they are and what they did. Mr Ball said that they were well received in the campaign.
Mr Ball said that a request has been made respectfully to the President and the Premiers to consider allowing UNESCO and lexicography to do a presentation to Cabinet and the Provincial Committees. The UNESCO partnership is very important and the Units have been working closely with the South African National Commission for UNESCO. The Units were requested by UNESCO to submit their dictionary series in a competition meant to identify the best language project. The material had not been implemented yet so this disqualified them from this competition, but it was a proud moment to get that far.
The Units are also working closely with SADiLAR (South African Digital Language Resources), based at the University of North West in Potchefstroom and are funded by the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology. Their work is to digitize SA’s indigenous languages. The link with SADiLAR and UNESCO also involves celebrations of all indigenous languages, two of which are left for this year.
The Units have taken steps in preparing dictionaries of six or seven San languages and dialects. It is difficult to take this programme forward positively until discussion with the Department of Arts and Culture and Basic Education in the Northern Cape has taken place.
Mr Ball said that the requests made of legislatures involved the Units entering into memoranda of understanding with the legislatures and the departments concerned. These MOUs focused on putting together a committee with representatives from the Department of Arts and Culture, Education Curriculum, Education Library Services, the Heads of the Lexicography Units for the languages concerned, and planning a programme for new material and implementation in the classroom.
The Honourable Minister of Basic Education responded to the letters and referred the Units to the Director General. The Units then requested an opportunity to present to the DGs and all the heads of department. In earlier letters the Minister suggested that the Units contact the DG, and the NLUs felt that the time has come to speak to the Department of Basic Education as well. While the development will probably take place at provincial level, it is important that the Department is aware of what is happening in the provinces and has oversight. The Units felt that there is lot of room for improvement in communication with the DBE and some provinces.
The Units had these specific requests of the Committee which they respectfully made:
A Presentation to the Council of Ministers and Headcom on an MOU between the parties;
Echo Arts and Culture Parliamentary instruction on implementation with matching statement;
Regular (six monthly) presentations to the Committee on the progress of this initiative;
Leave dictionary display in Parliament in early/mid 2020 to mark the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This could be in a picture frame showing the request for if Parliament could be responsible for holding those dictionaries for 100 years. The Unit heads should write a letter to whoever will be there in a 100 years’ time; and the Speaker to write a letter to the Speaker who would be holding the portfolio in a 100 years’ time. They think this would be marvelous to create publicity around the languages and remind the Members that the languages are there to be fought for, strengthened and supported;
Presentation of “time frames” to Parliament in early/mid 2020;
Amend Language in Education Policy to reflect the existence of the Units and entrench co-operation between the DBE, Provincial Departments of Education and the Lexicography Units; and
Include the Progress report on this campaign in SONA.
Mr T Malatji (ANC) commented on the issue of language. He said that what influences the strength of languages is economic activity. Whoever controls the economy controls the language because one needs the language. Parents force their kids to study in English because it is the language of those in charge of the economy, and no parent wants to invest in a language that will not assist their child in the future. It is important that the issue of language not be separated from issues regarding the economy because they are intertwined. He said that as a nation, South Africans need to sit down and say which language will be their dominant language and invest in that language. If anyone wants to trade with South Africa they should be able to trade with the language of that country. Looking at formerly racialised white schools, there should at least be another indigenous South African language that is being taught according to the demographics of the school. This could serve as a start to elevate the status of indigenous languages.
Ms C King (DA) asked whether the Units are providing the dictionaries in a braille version as well. Given the fourth industrial revolution, she asked if some of these indigenous language dictionaries were being digitized. What the ATC received shows was that the Units have been struggling to spend their research budget because of the litigation that has been going on. Ms King asked for an update on this litigation.
Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA) raised a question around the development of the languages in this country since they are not as developed as the English language for example. ‘What is being done to get to a level where we can fully communicate in indigenous languages in certain provinces as a means to empower the learners at schools’? There’s been a talk about Swahili being introduced and she asked for an update on that.
Mr E Siwela (ANC) welcomed the presentation. He agreed with Mr Malatji in that issues of language cannot be divorced from economic activities. ‘Is it not time to think of a South African language that should be spoken across the board’? ‘We should be like many other countries where they have their own indigenous language other than English spoken by everyone’. Unfortunately for a very long time English has been forced upon us, but fortunately for English it has developed to a point that it is an economic language as well. It is important to remove the myth that intelligence is equal to teachers. The work that is being done should be able to pay dividends so that hopefully all of the indigenous languages will be developed to a point where everyone is satisfied. The issue has long been provided for in the Constitution, and it is a matter of concern because learners who study in their mother tongue tend to perform better.
Ms N Adoons (ANC) responded that deciding on a dominant language is going to be another battle because the battle will be amongst us. It is not clear how one can move away from communicating by provinces instead of through one voice. Provinces should be able to accommodate a mixture of indigenous languages. Also, it is important to have joint meetings with the Portfolio Committees and the Department of Arts and Culture including the Department of Higher Education to see how best to move forward in transforming the culture of language in this country.
The Chairperson said that to be honest as South Africans one could agree that the second language would be Afrikaans. This is not because one was embracing apartheid but there was a way to make sure that everyone could speak Afrikaans without even going to school. If there was a debate about where one’s kids were learning, then the reality was that they spoke English and many parents had a problem with children who could not relate to their home language.
The Chairperson noted that there would be learners using sign language. She asked if there is a dictionary that would speak to sign language learners so that they can relate to indigenous languages as well. Furthermore there are other languages such as Khoi San and Nama and most of the people in the Northern Cape who were using these languages will end up going to Afrikaans schools. Government at some point did try to have relations with Namibia so that there were teachers that could teach Nama in order to promote indigenous languages. Those exchange programmes were implemented for junior phases and they could not go further.
As a matter of interest the Chair asked Mr Ball - as the Units he was working with contributed towards creating social cohesion - how the Units planned to create a platform for young emerging lexicographers, book illustrators and material developers for all the indigenous languages. The Chair went on to ask further if the Units foresaw providing the dictionaries as e-books as part of promoting multi-lingual skills.
The Chair commented that the requests raised required everyone’s efforts. For example, it is quite easy to accept the request for presentations every six months and the Committee would be able to comply. If the same exercise should happen for the executive of the country to encourage the kids and promote the issue of indigenous languages as difficult as that might be.
Mr Ball agreed with the clear statements around the strength of languages. On the issue of enforcing a rule that one indigenous language should be taught, Mr Ball reminded the Committee that he is not briefed to speak on behalf of the Department of Basic Education, but the teaching of indigenous languages has commenced at grade 1 level although this is a question that should be answered by the Department. This shows one of the reasons the Units need closer communication with the Department.
In answering the question on braille, the Units do not have the material available in braille. At this point, what can be said is that there is a major funding crisis or challenge within the Units. We have to ask ourselves as the Units, “do we digitize or is it better to develop new print material that has not been produced in that language before?” Braille is extremely expensive to produce. The Units would need an agency to convert the dictionaries to braille.
The dictionaries exist in a pdf format but not yet as e-dictionaries but it is something that they are working on. This is why the link with SADiLAR is important. Mr Ball is due to meet with the CSIR who have a programme of digitizing material and is hoping to work with them on that. Mr Ball envisions manipulative dictionaries that people can work on, on the internet and would like to see far more interactive dictionaries especially at the lower levels.
On the development of indigenous languages, the Units’ brief is to develop the materials in official indigenous languages only. The issue gets even trickier when people ask about other dialects and languages. These issues need to be discussed at a level higher than the Units. The Units can certainly make recommendations but this is a minefield.
Furthermore, one of the attitudes that one does have to work on changing was the idea that this is the proper Setswana for example, when one was simply speaking about different dialects and variations.
Language bodies do a lot of work in developing terminologies and orthographies etcetera, and these need to be put into the hands of every language teacher so they understand that this is the correct form of the language. A lot of these issues cannot be handled alone by the Units but can be worked on together. Almost all government departments have terminology sections where people are looking at developing the terminology in indigenous languages in various specialist fields and the Units are keen to engage with such matters.
On the south African language that should be spoken across the board, anything that is going to assist communication is a good idea. But how one goes about making the decision is tricky and not simply a matter of numbers as there is a huge amount of sensitivities at play.
On the issue of English being equated with intelligence, teachers are put under huge pressure by the parents to teach English. It is not clear that parents understand the pedagogy of this and what is best for the learners. This is a matter that needs to be considered by people of this expertise.
On the issue of dictionaries versus dialogues, what the Units are trying to do is that if there are three words for a particular object, then all three should be listed and then to say that it can be said that this was used predominantly in this area respectively.
The challenge the Units are experiencing was on deciding what the priorities should be because there is a lot of work to be done.
There are no dictionaries responding to the needs of sign language speakers. The Units are hoping that by working closely with government, the Units will receive the funding needed to expand their work. The National Lexicography Units are registered as NPOs and they draw the employees from the areas where they are based. They are mostly based at the universities.
The Chair ended by emphasising the importance of the indigenous languages in the country. The Committee will keep in contact, and the NLUs were welcome to update the Committee.
The meeting was adjourned.
- DAC - Arts & Culture Elevates indigenous Languages through the National Lexicography units
- South African National Commission for UNESCO & SA National Lexicography Units presentation
- Constitutional and Legislative Obligations of Departments of Education, Arts and Culture and NLUs to enter Memoranda of Understanding and Sound Reasons for Doing So
Mbinqo-Gigaba, Ms BP
Adoons, Ms NG
King, Ms C
Malatji, Mr T
Siwela, Mr EK
Tarabella - Marchesi, Ms NI
Yabo, Mr BS
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