Language is the most important and integral part of human existence. Without it the internet would not exist, economics would cease to function, our relationships with other would stop. Aristotle said humans are social animals, but also said that our essential distinguishing feature from other animals is that we use language to communicate. Language is the most important “tool” we have, but the problem is that language does not stay just a “tool”. Language is the vehicle for our emotions, the vehicle for patriotism and nationalism, hate crimes and racism; language is us. Identity is coupled with language. Jonathan Pool (1979) said that “identity influences language and language influences identity.” This statement will be the foundation of my argument. If we agree to this statement, we can conclude that language (especially your mother/home/first language) is crucial to the way you express yourself, to who you are. Your language is, in a way, who you are. You are yourself through your language. In Afrikaans, people tend to be more humble and modest, perhaps because the Afrikaans language tends to favour the “I’m sorry” clause when you ask someone something. In this piece, I will try and show how the loss of one’s first language is directly associated with the loss of one’s identity.
Today we are experiencing one of the worst casualties ever: with all the refugees moving away from their country, indirectly they are also moving away from their culture and language. If you are moving away from your country to a new place with a different language than your own, you will need to acquire the new country’s language to survive. This is not a new phenomenon. Learning a new language can bring forth endless new opportunities, for example acquiring English to study. The problem is when the newly acquired language is your only option, and you do not have an option. This is the problem refugees find themselves in, but also South Africans. When one looks at the numbers in South Africa, the “real” picture you get is scary, to say the least. The following statement can be found on a governmental website encouraging investment in South Africa:
“Today’s South Africa is one of the most sophisticated, diverse and promising emerging markets globally. Strategically located at the tip of the African continent, South Africa is a key investment location, both for the market opportunities that lie within its borders and as a gateway to the rest of the continent, a market of about 1- billion people.”
To have a successful country for people to invest in, you need it to be stable and have a good infrastructure, as well new young minds to take the country forward. If you just take a look at the numbers:
- Only 50% of grade one learners (7-year-olds) reach grade twelve (18-year-olds);
- Of that 50% only 18% percent reach university;
- Of the 18% that reached first year, 50% drop out before that year is finished.
In 2002 a million grade ones entered the school year. After the first twelve years, only 500 000 remained. In 2015 of those who were still left tried to enter university. In South Africa, there is only place for around 20% of the 500 000. Do the math with the statistics given above: only about 50 000 moves on to second year of university. From the original one million children who started in 2002, only 5% will reach second year of university. Where does the rest go? What happens to them? Is this the foundation for a stable country and a good image for possible investors? Is this the way to build a country or destroy it?
To get back to language, there is one big factor looming behind the above-mentioned statistics: language. In South Africa, mentioned in some of my other pieces, the only two languages that offer education is English and Afrikaans (but the last mentioned is also on death row of education languages). If you are one of the 11 million who do not talk Afrikaans or English as first language, you will need to acquire (most likely) English. If you are, for argument sake, a Xhosa-speaking child in grade one, you will get second language English until grade three or four. After that, your education is in English. You can clearly see the problem: the children who need to get proper English education, do not get it until is too late. The main problem in education in South Africa (according to me) is that there is precisely no education. (A new study done in South Africa suggested that 40% of grade four learners can only read 40 words per minute in English, thus concluding “that they could not understand what they were reading”.)
The situation is something like this thus far: In South Africa, you need English (or in some places Afrikaans) to get into the university. Most people (at least 50%) of South Africa do not get any education in English (or sufficient English). If you move away from your home language to English to try and further your education, you move away from your culture and your identity in your language. I conclude with the following: If identity is attached to language, and in South Africa you need to move away from your language (i.e. your identity), are we not endorsing identity loss, cultural loss? Most people today still blame Afrikaans (and the connotations with the people talking the language) and apartheid for them not getting into university, and I am not saying that this is not the case, it can be so. But if we look at the problem of education today (not related to apartheid because it has been 20 plus years after it), can’t we rather blame the lack of education? In South Africa at the moment there is a hard choice that needs to be made: we need to choose English and lose the identities of so many people and cultures, or we need to seriously and quickly rethink the way we handle education in this country.