Mother Tongue for Community Development

Wednesday, 5 March, 2008 - 08:58

Meaning Bearing and Meaning Giving RoleCommunity development is a complex issue which should continuously be subjected to multi-dimensional and critical scrutiny.

Meaning Bearing and Meaning Giving Role

Community development is a complex issue which should continuously be subjected to multi-dimensional and critical scrutiny. Officials and academics involved in the formulation of development policy, including economic, social, cultural, political, educational and environmental policy, should therefore be critical of development policy which retards community development projects and programmes, and in the longer term, self-reliance and independence.

In order to clearly illustrate the importance of the mother tongue for independent and sustainable community development, I have opted for an integrated approach. I therefore draw on the insights of two fields of study, i.e. Sociolinguistics and Community Development Theory.

Sociolinguistics focuses on the social dimension of language and therefore studies the relationship between language diversity, identity, power, social justice and the resulting economic and political imbalances. On a tactical level, it explores, monitors and evaluates the challenges posed to language planning and the implementation of language policy. Present-day political, economic and social realities are knowledge-driven and knowledge-dependant. Therefore, language policy should effectively contribute to and not undermine the educational development of communities. 

Community Development Theory and Practice focuses on planning and managing policy and processes aimed at fighting poverty, unemployment, social inequality and the depletion of resources.  On a tactical level, it explores, monitors and evaluates the challenges with regard to community participation, empowerment, capacity-building, sustainable development, self-sustainment and the learning process. Present-day political, economic and social realities, therefore, require context-specific and relevant policy and processes to ensure community participation that will eradicate underdevelopment and related social obstacles. 

The rationale for linking these two fields of study has to do with specific challenges which community activists or entities are confronted with daily. 

These challenges are, among others

  • Sensible development and implementation of strategies to fight poverty, undernourishment, illnesses, illiteracy, ignorance, unsustainable use of natural resources, low self esteem and a culture of dependence in undeveloped and poor communities;
  • Effective mobilisation of these communities to ensure their active participation in projects and programmes aimed at improving their living conditions;
  • Creating sustainable structures driven by the communities themselves with a view to ensuring long-term economic, cultural, educational, social and spiritual growth.

These challenges have caused numerous community projects to fail, thus leading to further deterioration in undeveloped and poor communities. To support the central argument of this paper, namely that mother tongue is of the utmost importance for participatory and sustainable community development, it is necessary to critically explore a range of aspects fundamental to these strategies and structures.

These aspects include, among others

  • The theoretical, philosophical and methodological dimensions of the various development frameworks and mother tongue disempowerment;
  • The development policy derived from this and the absence of mother tongue policy;
  • The development industry and dealing with issues via a foreign language;
  • The gap between development activists and entities resulting from a lack of mother tongue efficiency and an in-depth knowledge of indigenous cultures;
  • The fragmented nature of development policy, planning and implementation and the disregard for mother tongue.

Kotze , who views these aspects purely from a community development perspective, makes a valuable observation: “Developers will gain much understanding if they accept that what the local people do or fail to do are their own structure-determined reactions within their own meaning-giving context that are not subject to external influence and control.” 

Context, according to Kotze, refers to a complex framework of past experiences, metaphors, faith, values, perceptions, relationships, power imbalances, language and cultural practices unique to undeveloped and poor communities. It is within this framework that development initiatives become meaningful. Communities will therefore not “buy into” projects that they cannot relate to or that do not fit into their meaning-giving context.  For this context is, after all, the only one within which they can confidently associate with initiatives designed to improve their living conditions.  It is a fact that these communities are also exposed to other contexts through the radio, television, computer and cellphone, urbanisation, migration and globalisation. However, this exposure is often limited to the supply of cheap labour in exchange for low wages that provide in their basic needs only. These communities remain trapped in a spiral of disempowerment, and generation after generation fails to escape from the poverty, ignorance and the accompanying social evils. 

The disempowerment referred to in the previous paragraph has a long history behind it. According to Alexander , colonialism, imperialism and globalisation gave rise to a hierarchy of standard languages. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between the status of the languages and the level of economic and political power of the countries from which these languages originate.  Language has therefore always played a key role in the furthering of the economic and political agendas of specific countries and entities. To put this into perspective it is important to examine the theoretical, philosophical and methodological dimensions of the various theoretical frameworks in the field of development and, especially, how these relate to mother tongue disempowerment. 

In order to understand the extent and complexity of community development it is necessary to briefly analyse the theoretical, philosophical and methodological dimensions of the three most important theoretical frameworks within the field of development, namely the Western, Socialist and Humanistic schools of thought. However, it is also necessary to focus on the role of these schools in the systematic brainwashing or colonialisation of the minds of billions of people  by disregarding the mother tongues and establishing the colonial language as the standard language on every level of society.

According to Davids,  Community Development Theory and Practice is a relatively new phenomenon which as a discipline sharply emerged shortly after the Second World War.  Development theory is divided into different phases. The 1950s and early 1960s were dominated by the theories of the Modernization school.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a strong focus on the theories of the Dependency school and since the 1980s the focus shifted away from the previous macro theories to the development of micro theories or community-oriented development theories.

The Modernization school presupposed that the practices of underdeveloped countries were primitive and that the Western economic practices and values represented the only recipe to guide communities on a developmental and wealth-creating path. A classic example is the multi-levelled economic growth theory introduced in 1960 by the American scholar Walt Rostow. He proposed five levels which would ensure the development of underdeveloped countries. This meant substituting the indigenous and traditional systems with Western practices, creating a new political elite, centralizing the political structures, aligning the political, social and institutional entities with economic goals, developing peoples’ technological and entrepreneurial skills and creating mechanisms and institutions which would create high levels of mass consumption and expenditure.  This model was criticized mainly because of its strong colonial nature, the dependence on Western capital and its disregard for indigenous languages, culture and knowledge.

The 1960s were also characterised by the development of language policy for social, political and educational systems. According to Hartshorne in Mesthrie  the development of language policy on the African continent was influenced by, on the one hand, the total advantage of colonial languages on nearly all institutionalised levels of society and, on the other hand, the strong desire of academics and writers to use the mother tongues as educational and empowerment instrument in order to rid the countries of the colonial burden. He summarizes this situation as follows: “There has been a continuing tension in most African countries between these two tendencies accompanied by ambivalent attitudes towards English: on the one hand a recognition of its practical usefulness, on the other an uncomfortable frustration that Africans had little choice because of their subjection to a Western metropolitan culture.”

According to Hartshorne this tension and ambivalence were complicated by the fact that the new political elite totally ignored the academics and writers who argued in favour of the use of the mother tongue. After all, the colonial language provided in the immediate language needs of the elite who accepted it as the best language option for political unity, international communication, the transfer of skills and knowledge and a medium which introduced them to Western value systems.

The rise of the Dependency school and their sharp criticism against the development methodology of the Modernization school rekindled hope among academics and writers who campaigned for the use of the mother tongue. According to the Dependency school, socialism posed a solution for underdevelopment. Developing countries were therefore encouraged to break ties with Western capitalist countries and to strive towards self-sustainment and independence. According to Davids, the Dependency school also propagated the idea of development not necessarily being synonymous with Westernisation and that development would have to take place in the traditional context.

Critics of the Dependency school argue that it placed so much emphasis on identifying external stumbling blocks in the way of development that it failed to provide sensible and sustainable development initiatives. 

The intrinsic value of the mother tongue as an instrument for sustainable and independent community development was acknowledged by Dependency theorists, but as there was no progress implementing it at an institutional level, the language status quo was maintained. Alexander describes this situation as follows: “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.”

However, hope at last dawned. With the development of micro theories or community-oriented theories during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the focus shifted to six important building blocks, namely Community Participation, Capacity Building, Empowerment, Self-sustainment, Sustainability and Social Learning. Community development should therefore take place by the community for the community. Furthermore, Korten , one of the world’s leading development practitioners, holds the view that a unique development agenda, in line with the unique needs of the particular community, needs to be drawn up.

However, such development agenda would have to be supported by a linguistic infrastructure.  After all, it is the mother tongue which provides the foundation for the first three building blocks, i.e. Community Participation, Capacity Building and Empowerment. Alexander agrees and argues that this process of integrating development agenda and linguistic infrastructure should also highlight the need to eventually intellectualise our mother tongues.  Intellectualisation indeed forms the centre pin around which the other building blocks, namely Self-sustainment, Sustainability and Social Learning, revolve.

In conclusion, the role of Mother Tongue as a meaning bearing and meaning giving instrument for sustainable and independent community development can no longer be underestimated. We daily witness the harm caused by misconceived policy or the half-hearted implementation of policy on all levels of society. Let us therefore work together as development activists and entities to change policy that retards the development of underdeveloped communities. We can only do that if we acknowledge the diverse nature of our communities and put People First.

Christo van der Rheede ( is the head of the Foundation for Empowerment through Afrikaans, an organisation working in the field of language and community development. It is committed to the development of all indigenous languages and regards it as an important tool to develop communities and to build language related industries (print, music, entertainment, drama, film, television, translation, education, heritage and tourism industry) to bring about real empowerment at grassroots level.

1. Webb, V.N. 2006. Language Policy Development in South Africa. Centre for Research in the Politics of Language. University of Pretoria  
2. Kotze, D.A. & Kotze, P.M.J. 1997. ‘Understanding Communities: A Holistic Approach’ in Kotze D.A. (ed) Development Administration and Management: A Holistic Approach. JL van Schaik, Pretoria.
3. Kotze, D.A. & P.M.J. 1996. What is Wrong in Development? Artikel gepubliseer in In Focus van Mei/Junie 1996. 
4. Alexander, N. & Busch, B. 2007. Literacy and linguistic diversity in a global perspective. An Intercultural Exchange with African Countries. Council of Europe. Strasbourg
5. Alexander, N. & Busch, B. 2007. Literacy and linguistic diversity in a global perspective. An Intercultural Exchange with African Countries. Council of Europe. Strasbourg6. Davids, I. 1998. Development Theories: Past to Present. School of Public Management and Planning, University of Stellenbosch  
7. Mesthrie, R. 1995. Language Policy in Africa Education: a Background to the Future in Language and Social History. Studies in South Africa Sociolinguistics. David Philip, Cape Town
8. Burkey, S. 1993. People First. A Guide tot Self-Reliant Participatory Rural Development. Zed Books. London
9. Korten, D.C. 1990. Getting to the 21st Century. Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda. West Hartford: Kumarian Press

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events