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Whites In South Africa Told To Learn African Languages

By Ralf Krueger     Mar 29, 2001 in Technology
JOHANNESBURG (dpa) - South Africa's Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel had no problem switching to the clicking language of Xhosa during the recent budget debate and interspersing his speech with some Zulu.

Such language proficiency should be standard for most white South Africans, a report by the Education Commission of the Ministry of Culture recommended.

The recommendation has created much controversy in the country. It again became an issue at an Education Conference held earlier this year when a report by language teachers was made public in which they criticised the dominance of the English language.

"We find that African languages are dying out as second languages for English and Afrikaans speakers," the teachers criticised, calling it a scandal when seeing this in the light of the constitution.

South Africa has eleven official languages entrenched in the constitution similar to models in Switzerland and Belgium. Apart from English and Afrikaans, which originates from Dutch settlers, there are the African languages of Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Tsonga, North and South Sotho, Swati, Venda and Ndebele.

Zulu is spoken by ten million people and Xhosa by seven million people. For the mainly white language of Afrikaans, the figure is 5.9 million, followed by 3.4 million for English.

The recommendation affects mainly white schools but also mixed- race and Asian schools where African languages are seldom taught.

The teaching of African languages is aimed at breaking down barriers, says Linda Chisholm of the Education Ministry. But the primary objective remains the teaching in the mother language and a promotion of the English language which is still "the most direct path to a job".

The government wants to leave the decision to the schools. They however hesitate in appointing teachers for African languages. The universities too provide limited offers for learning languages.

According to a survey by the Sunday Times newspaper interest has fallen by half sicne 1996. The University of South Africa, the only university offering courses in all official languages, has seen the number of language students fall from 25,000 to 3,000 today.

The Education Commission therefore chose careful language in formulating its recommendation. "To be a good South African citizen one needs to be at least bilingual if not trilingual.

"It would not be unwise to expect from English and Afrikaans speakers that they speak at least two but even better three languages," the report states.
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