Tagged: language politics Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 8:40 am on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , language policy, language politics, rwanda   

    The costs of switching to English 

    French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.

    Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right?  It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business.  But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.

    Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards.  In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.

    Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month.  Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.

    As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English.  Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.

    The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 7:39 am on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afrikaans, , language politics, , xhosa, zulu   

    Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?) 

    I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

    But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

    The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

    While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

    Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

    I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

    Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

    And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

    Lots of questions, but so little time!

     
c
compose new post
j
next post/next comment
k
previous post/previous comment
r
reply
e
edit
o
show/hide comments
t
go to top
l
go to login
h
show/hide help
shift + esc
cancel