Creating Wealth Through Indigenous Languages

literacy teaching languages underdevelopment
Wednesday, 15 September, 2010 - 11:38

South Africa should investigate the educational and economic potential of indigenous languages in order to dispel the myth that these languages cannot function on the same level as English and Afrikaans. The absence of indigenous languages in schools and universities will prolong the cycle of ‘intergenerational transmitted poverty’ in which the majority of non-English speaking South Africans are trapped. The failure by most developing countries to promote the use of indigenous languages creates an impression that they perceive these languages as inferior

Attempts to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty will never be successful as long as we disregard or underestimate the role and impact of indigenous languages in the educational, economic, social and cultural sectors of any society. These sectors often remain inaccessible to communities if they have to access it through a foreign language only or when products and services are only available in a foreign language. This is not only disempowering, but it entrenches the myth that indigenous languages are of lesser value. This paper therefore investigates the educational and economic value of indigenous languages and proposes practical steps to unlock it in order to benefit the speakers of indigenous languages and to probably break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.


We live in an information society in which the creation and distribution of information is the most significant economic, cultural, educational and social activity. The knowledge economy is the economic component of the information society in which the production and utilisation of knowledge play a principal role in the creation of wealth. Our diverse and dynamic indigenous language heritage is an important enabling resource for developing communities to actively participate in the knowledge economy and spearhead development within their own communities themselves.

This point of view is however not appreciated or clearly understood by various stakeholders, whether it be the speakers of indigenous languages themselves, scholars or politicians. It is therefore important to investigate the educational and economic potential of indigenous languages in order to dispel the myth that our South African indigenous languages cannot function at the same level as English or Afrikaans. This is done through a sector analysis in which our indigenous languages already function as core educational and economic drivers. In addition, it also investigates how to create a digital presence with indigenous languages and propose particular steps which communities can follow to use their indigenous languages to their advantage in order to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.

The Dilemma

Why is it that in all developed countries, the majority of schools and universities provide mother tongue education, but in developing countries most learners do not have the benefit of being taught in their mother tongue? And why is it that in all developed countries the media industry, such as the electronic, print, radio, television, film, post and telecommunication, music, language practitioners and related sectors provide most of their products in the mother tongue, but in developing countries the same industries provide very few if any products in the local languages?

Is it because developing countries regard their own languages as inferior as opposed to developed countries who purposefully seek to preserve, protect, promote and commodify their own languages for educational and economic purposes? And in addition, is it because developing countries lack the political will to preserve, protect, promote and commodify their own languages and as result fail to optimise the educational usage and economic value thereof?

The answers to the aforementioned questions can be relayed back to our colonial past. Because not only did colonialism play a major role in terms of entrenching the belief that our indigenous languages and culture equate backwardness, illiteracy and ethno-traditionalism, but it simultaneously positioned the languages of the colonial powers as symbols of civilisation by embedding them in all public and private spheres as the official means of communication for educational and economic activities (Alexander 2008; Webb 2006 & Mutasa 2003).

The Challenge

Reversing this proclivity towards colonial languages poses a major challenge for most African countries and especially the political elite. Because, in most instances after the political power was handed to newly elected African governments, very little was done to improve the status of indigenous languages and optimise the economic potential thereof. According to Alexander the “African elites who inherited the colonial kingdom from the ostensibly departing colonial overlords, for reasons of convenience and in order to maintain their grip on power, have made nominal gestures towards equipping the indigenous languages of the continent with the wherewithal for use in powerful and high-status contexts” (Alexander 2007: 18).

Hence, in a paper titled ‘Language Policy Development in South Africa’, Webb appeals to the newly democratically elected South African government to steer clear from such ‘nominal gestures’, and instead to focus on proper language planning which is aimed at elevating the status and advancing the use of our indigenous languages within the education, economic, social, cultural and political spheres (SA Constitution 1996: Section 6.2)1 .

In order to realise its basic objective of transformation, reconstruction and development, the SA government must obviously keep the basic language planning goal in mind, that is, to bring about a (radical) change in the language political realities of the country, creating a situation in which the languages of the country co-exist in a balanced way and function as developmental facilitators in education, the economy, political life, state administration, and the social and cultural spheres. Its language plan must therefore contribute to resolving the language-related problems discussed above. The SA government must thus not endorse a language policy proposal which will simply lead to a reproduction of the previous (and existing) language politics, where non-Bantu languages are dominant in public life and are perceived as the symbols of the ruling elite, prestige and success, and the Bantu languages are perceived as symbols of a socio-economic underclass and as instruments only of the low functions of public life. To achieve the general over-all goal of language political transformation where each of the official languages perform meaningful functions, language planning in SA needs to be directed at... specific goals” (Webb 2006: 11).

This meaningful function which Webb refers to includes using our indigenous language for educational, social, cultural, economic and political empowerment. He emphasises however the importance of language planning in South Africa in order to optimise the usages of our indigenous language and cultural resources to enable communities to actively participate in the knowledge economy, to advance education and to create wealth. Such educational and economical optimisation of our indigenous languages is therefore crucial to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.

A study in this regard however indicates that the official indigenous languages with the exception of English and Afrikaans (indications are however that the status of the latter is steadily eroded) remain marginalised. It states the following:

Although the national language stands as a symbol for the uniqueness of the nation, the official language remains the key to power. It is, in effect, the language of formal public transactions such as education and the workplace. However, in countries such as South Africa, with the exception of English and Afrikaans, the indigenous official languages remain marginalised, and on the fringes of economic society, thereby excluding the vast majority of the population from mainstream economic activity” (Kaschula, Mostert, Schafer & Wienand 2007: 10).

Hence the challenge for South Africa is to democratise the linguistic landscape and end the interrelated educational and economic marginalization of the bulk of our citizens.

On the one hand, this requires political will to honour the language stipulations as set out in our National Constitution, political conviction to enact the South African Language Bill and political vivacity to implement the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy adopted by Cabinet in 2004 . Scholars such as Alexander, Webb and Mutasa agree that this is certainly the most crucial point of departure for achieving a more equal language dispensation and to broaden the participation of previously marginalised people in mainstream economic activities. Mutasa (2003: 325) highlights,

The government and other stakeholders should draw all segments of the population on facts such as that unity and progress cannot be achieved through the use of one language, that people can only be empowered through their languages, that it is a myth that African languages cannot be developed to function like English and as was the case with Swahili and Afrikaans

On the other hand, it requires vision, self belief and entrepreneurial thinking by the language community itself to:

  • Employ our indigenous languages as knowledge extractors, generators and distributors
  • Promote and mobilise support for mother tongue education
  • Expand the existing industries or economic sectors where indigenous languages function as core economic drivers
  • Create a digital presence with indigenous languages
  • sustain the presence and mobilise support
  • Grow the digital linguistic space occupied by indigenous languages and concomitantly increase its share within the knowledge economy
  • Create wealth and to optimise its educational and economic usage in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty

Keith Nurse in a paper titled ‘Culture as the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development’ reminds us however to be always mindful of whose development agenda is served through such entrepreneurial thinking and advises that communities must own such development agendas and drive the process themselves to avoid creating new dependencies. He puts the following argument forward:

What needs to be underscored is that sustainable development as practised in the developing world is largely informed by Western notions and is often funded in accord with the agenda of multilateral, bilateral, non-governmental and philanthropic donor agencies from the developed countries. This is viewed as problematic because it creates new dependencies for the developing world and raises concerns about whose agenda is being served” (Nurse 2006: 36).

Economic and Educational Optimisation of Indigenous Languages

As set out in the previous paragraph, in order to achieve these ideals this paper will:

  • Analyse some key sectors in which the various official indigenous languages of South Africa are deployed as the core drivers of educational and economic activity, such as Education, Radio, Television, Film, Advertising, Print media and Electronic media,
  • Identify ways of creating a digital indigenous linguistic space,
  • Explore ways to grow such a digital indigenous linguistic space educationally, socially as well as commercially, and
  • Provide practical steps for communities to drive the economic and educational optimisation process of indigenous languages themselves.

Sector Analysis

General and Further Education

A great deal has been written about the year-on-year decline in matric results in South African schools, the low levels of literacy and numeracy, the high drop-out rate of learners and the low levels of skills of school leavers which is required for the industrial sector or place of work. This is because, in part, the majority of learners in South African schools are not taught in their mother tongue which could be any of the indigenous languages, but are taught in a language other than their mother tongue.

All primary school-based systemic evaluation and testing as well as the analysis of performance by learners who are not being tested in their mother-tongue (MT) at Grade 12 level, plus the high drop-out rate give a clear message that the system is not working as it should and, in some cases, not at all. We need to take a sharp look at the languages of learning and teaching (LoLTs) which are being used in schools and accept that it is the responsibility of the WCED to point out very clearly the disadvantages of dropping the mother-tongue too early” (WCED Language-In-Education Transformation Plan 2007).

In most cases the language of learning and teaching would be English and in some instances Afrikaans. According to Horne (2007:6), this problem is further compounded by educators “who are not sufficiently skilled to cope with the demands of language–of–learning English in the classroom”. In many instances subtractive bilingualism is practiced, due to inapt code switching between English and the mother tongue, instead of following a systematic process of additive bilingualism, meaning laying the foundation solidly in the mother tongue first and to progressively introduce English as a second language (Horne, 2007:4).

In the event of schools practicing transitional bilingual education, the transition from the mother tongue as language of instruction to English should be thoroughly planned to avoid subtractive bilingualism. If schools however practice maintenance bilingual education English is added, but it does not replace the mother tongue as language of instruction. Additive bilingualism is further strengthened by the extensive use of the mother tongue (UNESCO 2008:8).

The evidence is clear: mother-tongue-based-bilingual education significantly enhances the learning outcomes of students from minority language communities. Moreover, when mother-tongue bilingual education programmes are developed in a manner that involves community members in some significant way and explicitly addresses community concerns, these programmes also promote the identification of the minority community with the formal education process. The parameters that shape a bilingual education programme include the availability of resources, its pedagogical and social goals, and the political environment in which it is to be implemented. The examples described above demonstrate a variety of such parameters, all of which have given rise to innovative and effective bilingual education models” (UNESCO 2008:41).

In addition, teaching and learning is a two-way communication affair and a mismatch between the language of teaching and the mother tongue of the learner seriously affects the learner’s academic progress. In many instances this problem is further complicated when the teacher is not competent in the language of teaching (Nomlomo 2005:269) . The matter of mother-tongue bilingual education is therefore a factor which must be taken into account if we wish to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty. In terms of educational value it greatly enhances the quality of teaching and learning and in terms of economic value it contributes to a higher through-put rate and the development of knowledgeable and skilled citizens.

Higher Education

In terms of the latter, some scholars are also advocating that mother-tongue bilingual education be extended to higher education as well. The Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions released in 2008 also emphasises the instructional value of indigenous languages. It however, states that most universities in South Africa, with the exception of some of the historically Afrikaans universities and one or two others have failed to introduce any of the indigenous language as a medium of instruction.

The role of language is therefore critical to higher education transformation, as it impacts on access and success, affirms diversity, while the right of a student to “instruction in the language of his or her choice, where this is reasonably practicable”, is afforded by the Constitution. It is no wonder then that language policy is the subject of contestation in higher education institutions. In this regard, all institutions are committed to multilingualism in one form or another, including the development of African languages as academic languages, and the introduction of African languages as languages of communication. However, more often than not, this commitment remains symbolic, as a range of factors, such as the availability of qualified staff, finances and student interest militate against the full implementation of multilingualism. It should be noted though that there is also opposition at different levels and of varying intensity to the acknowledgement of the significance of mother tongue mastery in academic success” (Report of the Ministerial Committee 2008:94).

However, Ramani and Joseph have found that “much of the aggressiveness towards African languages disappears once an African language is presented as medium as part of a dual-medium programme” (Ramani & Joseph 2006:17). The work of Ramani and Joseph centres around the development of a dual-medium BA degree in English and Sesotho sa Leboa at the University of Limpopo which is based on a model of additive bilingualism. This model enables students to develop their English as well as their mother tongue competencies for “higher-order cognitive work” (Ramani & Joseph 2006:4).

The aforementioned approach of introducing our indigenous languages as mediums of instruction together with English in higher education can improve our understanding of the complex indigenous framework of past experiences, metaphors, faith, values, perceptions, relationships, power struggles, economic activities, language, cultural and agricultural practices and develop innovative strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Such insights can never be gained if we continue to undervalue our indigenous languages.

One result of the disuse of African languages in education, and the devaluation of the knowledge embodied in these languages, is the positioning of Africa as a receiver rather than a contributor. African countries receive knowledge, know-how, technology, books, etc. from other countries, particularly in the West, but are not seen to contribute anything of ‘recognised value’ to the global knowledge pool” (Roy-Campbell 2005:3).

In addition, communities will not take ownership of projects that they cannot relate to or that do not fit into their meaning-giving context. For their context is, after all, the only one within which they can confidently associate with projects designed to improve their living conditions. That these communities are also exposed to other contexts through the radio, television, computer, cellular phone, urbanisation, migration and globalisation cannot be dispelled. However, this exposure is often limited to the supply of cheap labour in exchange for a living wage which is any way too little to escape the spiral of disempowerment, poverty, ignorance and despair.

Kotze concurs and makes the following valuable observation: “The people’s meaning-giving context is the only framework within which they can relate to developers. It is the framework within which development initiatives obtain meaning. It will either permit or block development, depending whether there is a ‘fit’ between development initiatives and context. People will not be steered, influenced or ‘taken with’ unless the development initiative has positive meaning within their context” (Kotze & Kotze 1996:7).

Given this background, it is necessary to investigate some of the key sectors in which the various official languages of South Africa are deployed as the core drivers of educational and economic activity, specifically radio, the publishing sector and electronic media and what in addition could be done to optimise the use of our indigenous languages in these sectors in order to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty.

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1 Read Section 6 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa as adopted by the Constitutional Assembly on 8 May 1996 and as amended on 11 October 1996.
2 The National Language Policy Bill approved by Cabinet in 2003 seeks to develop and promote the Bantu languages in order to facilitate economic development via the promotion of multilingualism and develop the capacity of the country’s languages, especially in the context of technologisation (South African Languages Bill 2003).
3 The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy was adopted by Cabinet in 2004. The purpose of this policy is to recognise, affirm, develop, promote and protect IKS systems in South Africa. It is also provides a basis upon which indigenous knowledge can be used to improve the lives of many and to eradicate poverty (Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy 2004).

4 The study undertaken by Vuyokazi Nomlomo focused on the impact of language on effective teaching and learning in Science. Two grade four isiXhosa mother tongue groups, one taught in English and the other in isiXhosa, were observed and the data showed that learners taught through the medium of isiXhosa (56%) outperformed those taught in English (30%).
5A BA degree in Contemporary English Language (CELS) and Multilingual Studies (MUST) was implemented since 2003 at the School of Languages and Communication Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Limpopo.

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