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Ngubane: National Multilingualism Consultative Conference (12/06/2003)

12th June 2003


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Date: 12/06/2003
Source: Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
Title: Ngubane: National Multilingualism Consultative Conference



Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen

We are here today, ladies and gentlemen, because South Africa has 11 official languages. We are here because Cabinet approved a National Language Policy Framework which guarantees a new language dispensation for multilingualism in South Africa.

I would like to give you an overview of the language policy and a glimpse of our implementation strategies. I will also touch on the importance of multilingualism in South Africa and give examples of practical implementation by launching spellcheckers for the indigenous languages and a multilingual Mathematics dictionary. And lastly, I will make an appeal to you to participate in discussions and interrogate the South African Languages Bill in detail.

We are here today, ladies and gentlemen, to make sure that the implementation of the language policy and the South African Languages Bill capture the spirit of the constitutional provisions on language and appropriately reflect the content of the language policy.

I am sure you would agree with me, language policy in South Africa has never been more important than right now. We are now moving from developing policy to implementing policy: showing through example that multilingualism can be implemented in South Africa in a practical manner without excessive financial implications.

Since the launch of the National Language Policy Framework, and the announcement of the Policy statement, my Department has drafted an Implementation Plan to operationalise the policy, which was discussed at two previous occasions, and has also reworked the South African Languages Bill. Today we would like to consult with you on the Languages Bill because I believe it is the cornerstone of well-managed multilingualism.

And in an effort to demonstrate that this new dispensation for multilingualism will not only be talked about and is not only empty words - we are also launching spellcheckers for the indigenous languages and a multilingual Mathematics dictionary today. I have been told that copies will be available at the exhibitions.

Implementing our multilingual language policy will obviously be an evolutionary process. The elevated status of the indigenous languages to official languages and their prescribed use by government means that a concerted effort will be necessary in the development of terminology for the various fields of application.

The National Language Service through its Terminology Co-ordination Section is doing valuable work in this regard in close collaboration with various stakeholders and in particular with the Pan South African Language Board.

Not only will we need terminology, we will also need trained and experienced language professionals. Capacity building will be very important as well as a Language Practitioners' Council to raise the status of the profession, safeguard the quality of products and protect members of the public who make use of language services. A Language Code of Conduct to advise public servants on how to communicate and interact with the public in order to render effective service is also envisaged.

Another aspect of implementing this language policy will be collaboration of the different role players in South Africa. An information databank with information on role players, their projects and research being done on language, in South Africa and internationally, as well as awareness campaigns will be required to co-ordinate all language policy implementation activities. A National Language Forum would encourage discourse on implementation issues between the role players and maximise co-ordination and efficiency in the utilisation of resources. It would also be a platform where ideas and experiences could be shared.

Some of the important role players that we have thus far identified are: -

* The Pan South African Language Board and its substructures, the Provincial Language Committees, the National Lexicography Units, the National Language Bodies;
* The provincial and parliamentary Hansard offices; and
* Language units in government departments in the provinces.

Of these, the language units are still to be established in most cases and will be devoted to managing the implementation at the specific national government departments and in each of the provinces. They will be central to ensuring the sustained use of the official languages as required by the policy.

A lot of work still needs to be done, as you can see, ladies and gentlemen. But let us remember that this work is not and will not be in vain.

Multilingualism in South Africa will afford individuals great opportunities. Opportunities to make choices, opportunities to be empowered and opportunities to be educated. It is important that South African citizens be afforded the opportunity of achieving in their own languages, of not dropping out of school because of difficulty with a second or third language as medium of instruction.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a renowned sociolinguist, believes that "high competence in English will be like literacy skills today and computer skills tomorrow". According to her, competency in English will become something that employers see as self-evident and a necessary basic prerequisite, but not sufficient in itself and that other competencies, including other languages, will be required.

In South Africa, where 15 million people are illiterate and computer skills are reserved for a select few, it is unlikely that large numbers of South Africans will achieve such high competency in English. On the contrary, English Literacy Skills Assessment Reports show that the level of English proficiency in South Africa is declining annually, despite the fact that one out of five people is learning English.

Official multilingualism aims to foster respect for language rights and linguistic diversity, and to promote national unity. National unity cannot be forged through dominance of one language by another. Such dominance could lead to social tension and even violence, as history has indeed shown. Respecting, accepting and accommodating the language preferences of individuals will contribute more to national unity than official monolingualism.

The financial cost of multilingualism is often given as argument against multilingualism. In fact, a cost estimate exercise carried out by my Department in 2001 showed that implementing multilingualism would require a maximum increase of only 2% in budgets. For those of you who are worried about the economy: you might have heard the argument that monolingual countries prosper and multilingual countries are poor. There are in fact examples of prosperous multilingual countries. Countries such as Belgium, Canada, Finland and Switzerland have shown that there is not necessarily a causal relationship between poverty and multilingualism. Likewise, monolingualism has not ensured economic prosperity to all countries, for example Portugal and many African and Latin-American countries which opted for official monolingualism have not been necessarily prosperous.

Professor Vic Webb has identified four language-based problems that would benefit from implementing multilingualism. These are restricted access to knowledge and skills; low productivity and ineffective performance in the workplace; inadequate political participation by the public resulting in manipulation, discrimination, and exploitation by ruling powers contributing to national division and conflict; and linguistic and cultural alienation.

Allowing people to access information in a language that they know best, allowing people to be educated and trained in a language that they know best, allowing people to understand important messages, allowing people to understand the discourse necessary for political participation and allowing them to use the languages that they know well - that is what multilingualism is all about.

The implementation of well-managed multilingualism in South Africa would impact on the economic, social, educational, political and personal growth of individuals.

As we have seen, the major argument against multilingualism is the financial implications. But the value of multilingualism for South Africa is not exclusively measurable in Rands and cents. And the truth is that monolingualism also has financial costs for South Africa. Think about the hidden cost implications for the country such as loss of manpower because of dropouts from the educational system, loss of life because of misunderstandings, poor performance and poor communication.

We should guard against glorifying specific languages at the cost of stigmatising others. In the words of Stephen Wurm:

"Each language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex, mirroring the manner in which a speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world and has formulated its thinking, its system of philosophy and understanding of the world around it. In this, each language is the means of expression of the intangible cultural heritage of people and it remains a reflection of this culture which underlies it decays and crumbles, often under the impact of an intrusive, powerful, usually metropolitan, different culture. However, with the death and disappearance of such a language, an irreplaceable unit in our knowledge and understanding of human thought and world-view is lost forever."

In this context, the idea that linguistic diversity is as necessary as biodiversity for the planet makes sense. The implementation of multilingualism in South Africa will be a celebration of our linguistic diversity. Multilingualism is not a problem. It is a resource. On an individual level, knowledge of more than two languages allows communication with more people and allows access to the specific knowledge that particular speech communities possess.

After eight years of democracy, South Africa has now arrived at a crucial point in its history. We have to respond to our linguistic and cultural diversity and to the challenges of constitutional multilingualism. I believe the National Language Policy Framework provides a fresh approach to the implementation of multilingualism and encourages the use of our indigenous languages to foster and promote national unity. It advocates linguistic diversity, social justice, the principle of equal access to public services and programmes, and respect for language rights.

Although the scope of the policy is specifically aimed at all government structures at national, provincial and local government level as well as institutions exercising a public power or performing a public function in terms of legislation, I hope that the private sector will be motivated by our example and also take the language preferences of their clients into account. Government will encourage and where necessary support private enterprises to develop and implement their own language policies in accordance with the national framework.

As I indicated earlier, we will need trained language professionals for the successful implementation of this multilingualism policy. The demand for translation and editing work and interpreting services, especially for the indigenous languages, will increase.

The establishment of language units in each government department and in the provinces will also impact on the scope of the activities of the National Language Service. Co-ordination and management of the implementation of the policy by facilitating training and support of the work programmes will be necessary to guarantee success.

Utilising technology for the development of our languages and developing our languages for use with Human Language Technology applications such as spellcheckers, translation memories and speech-recognition systems will do a lot to enhance the status of our languages and will result in increased job opportunities in the language field.

I think it is important to stress that the progressive phasing in of the implementation of the policy in the short, medium and long term is the preferred strategy at all levels. A haphazard, as-quickly-as-possible implementation strategy will not benefit multilingualism and has the potential of leaving even the converted disillusioned. The advantage of the gradual phasing in methodology is that departments and provinces will be able to develop capacity incrementally and manage the implementation process more effectively.

The implementation process will be monitored by the Department of Arts and Culture in collaboration with the Pan South African Language Board and regular policy reviews will be conducted to recommend necessary adjustments and amendments.

Taking the language policy, our plans for implementation and the advantages of multilingualism into account, please assist us in making sure that the SA Languages Bill is a true legal reflection of our intentions so that this piece of legislation indeed becomes the cornerstone for well-managed multilingualism in South Africa.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, let us not think of this policy as merely a bureaucratic exercise, as something we feel we should be doing because the Constitution demands it of us. I hope you will all join me in viewing this as an opportunity for all of us to use our own languages, whether at work, at home or socially. Our languages and our cultures are part of who we are, and we should be proud of ourselves. Our languages do not belong to government, they belong to us. Every one of us should follow the example set by this policy, and go out and enjoy our languages, encourage our children to learn their mother tongues, and make the effort to learn some of the languages spoken by our friends and colleagues around us.

I thank you.

Issued by Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
12 June 2003


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