Tag Archives: language of instruction

From Afrikaans to Zulu, South Africa’s languages have stories to tell

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

During apartheid, South Africa had two official languages, English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages, like the people who spoke them, were considered inferior.

When apartheid ended, the Afrikaner minority that had ruled South Africa was willing to give up some of its power — but not its language.

“Language for the Afrikaner nationalists had been central to their identity, their being, their struggle,” said South African constitutional judge Albie Sachs. “They could just about imagine conceding democracy, and could just about imagine a constitution in which black and white were equal. But if Afrikaans was downgraded: boom!”

Sachs — who was imprisoned and exiled during apartheid — helped write the post-apartheid constitution, which upgraded nine indigenous languages without reducing the status of English and Afrikaans.

“In two sentences, we had solved the basic dilemma of the language question in South Africa,” said Sachs. “No language is any more important than any other language.”

Government recognition of 11 languages reflects Nelson Mandela’s vision of an inclusive rainbow nation. But it has also created tensions: English dominates in many spheres of business and culture, as it does elsewhere around the globe.

Afrikaans remains tainted by its association with apartheid, even as some of its younger speakers are trying to change that. Also, some middle class blacks prefer to speak English in the home, rather than Xhosa, Tswana or other indigenous languages.

South Africa has nearly seven million Afrikaans native speakers, placing it ahead of English, but behind Zulu and Xhosa.

More than 11 million South Africans grew up speaking Zulu, but few speak it as a second language, and fewer still speak it in business settings. As a result, the language is not evoloving as rapidly as say, English. It can also be clunky. The words for the numerals eight and nine are horribly long, for example, so Zulu speakers often just switch to the English words. And like many indigenous languages, there aren’t many Zulu words for the Internet age.

So language activist Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi has invented his own Zulu words, and hoping that his neologisms catch on. He has already dreamed up more than 500 words, such as buyafuthi (recycling), derived from the Zulu words for ‘bring back’ and ‘again.’

You can hear Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi discuss his one-man Zulu language academy in the audio of this story, along with excerpts of linguist Mark Turin’s excellent BBC documentary on the recent history of South Africa’s languages. The full version of Turin’s documentary is in this previous podcast.


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Turkey offers to end a ban on Kurdish-associated letters of the alphabet

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based reporter Dalia Mortada

Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.

Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet – X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.

The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.

Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.

“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”

One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.

There are also plenty of Kurdish language instructional videos on YouTube.

Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.

But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.

Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.

But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.

Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.

Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.

Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.

Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.

“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.


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Elite Italian University Meets Resistance As It Tries To Go All-English

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from Italy-based contributor to the Big Show Megan Williams…

Across continental Europe, more college and university classes are being taught in English. In making the switch to English, institutions in non-English-speaking countries believe they are better preparing students for a globalized workforce. They’re also seeking to attract more foreign students.

But sometimes, there’s fierce opposition to these moves. That was the case when lawmakers in France recently proposed increasing the number of university courses taught in English.

In Italy, a court has barred the Politecnico di Milano, the MIT of Italy, from switching to English as its sole language of instruction. The university is appealing the decision.

Already some Politecnico classes are taught in English. Drop in on computer science professor Giuseppe Serazzi’s weekly lecture and you can witness the change. Serazzi starts with a brief introduction in Italian. Then, he switches to English. The plan was for all professors teaching Master-level courses to do that.

Politecnico rector Giovanni Azzone boldly announced last year that by 2015, all post-graduate courses and some undergrad programs would be offered only in English.

Azzone said the switch to English is needed to keep attracting top Italian students who want the option of eventually working outside Italy.

“You need an international environment,” said Azzone. “You must attract international students. English is fundamental. Italian at present is an entry barrier.”

But it’s a move that met with vociferous opposition from many of the Politecnico’s 1,400 faculty members. They launched a petition calling the switch to English unconstitutional, saying it limited the freedom to teach and study in Italian, and put Italy’s cultural heritage at risk. And now they have found an ally in an Italian regional court.

Professor Hans de Wit, an expert on the internationalization of higher education at the Cattolica University in Milan, said that argument has been used many times— in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

De Wit called the Italian court’s decision “a shock.” He thinks what’s really happening is that some older professors understandably fear that a switch to English will sideline them professionally. But according to de Wit, research it’s what students want.

Politecnico Di Milano may have made a tactical mistake. De Wit said its announced change may have been too dramatic. The universities that have made the switch to English successfully have done so slowly and discreetly, thereby avoiding uncertainty and resistance.

As part of the plan to switch to English, all professors and support staff not already fluent in English have been taking weekly ESL classes. But some are there against their will, and others say a lesson a week just isn’t enough to be able to work in English.

Students agree. Computer Science student Javier Hualpa, who’s from Argentina, says it’s ironic he had to pass a stringent English exam to get in, when many of his professors would flunk it. “You have two kinds of teachers here,” says Hualpa. “The ones who have done a PhD outside Italy—they speak clear English; and the Italian ones who learned English locally with an Italian cadence. Even for the International students we say, ‘You don’t speak well.’”

Despite the problems in switching to English, students like Hualpa and the Politecnico’s rector agree that not switching to English would only limit their future choices.



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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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Caught Between Two Languages

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

Here’s a guest post from Mexico-based reporter Myles Estey…

It’s Saturday morning in the rural Mexican state of Zacatecas and we are in English class. Antonio Acosta gives basic lessons to 35 teachers. “In! Between! Over! On!” he shouts out during one exercise. English levels vary, so Acosta is reviewing some of the basics.

In the class is Nora Santana. She can speak English fine, but feels rusty, too. She’s here to feel more comfortable with the language in order to better connect with her new students, those who grew up in the United States and who are having trouble keeping up with classes in Spanish. “They feel so confused,” said Santana. “They don’t understand everything I teach in Spanish.”

Other teachers, like Eduardo García, speak very little English and hit communication walls quickly with new students, especially those now arriving unable to speak Spanish at all.

In recent years, Acosta, an education official here, has witnessed the influx of school-aged kids returning to Mexico. They arrive with their parents, who have left the United States because they are undocumented or couldn’t find work. Acosta says the kids can feel disoriented in a Mexican classroom—like foreigners, but in what is supposedly their own nation.

Now, Acosta is pioneering a project to get Mexican teachers more accustomed to English. While some believe that the money might be better spent other ways, Acosta says that English classes are critical to help teachers and their students adjust.

Mexican teachers learning English take a break from class (Photo: Myles Estey)

“If the teachers learn English, the basic English level, they are going to use this kind of tool to communicate with the children that are coming from the United States,” said Acosta.

The class is best suited for teachers like 28-year-old Ari Rodríguez.

Rodríguez says she can have a tough time communicating with some of her new students from the US and keeps English crib notes handy. She mentions one newcomer, Juan, though he goes by John in the US. He is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, who just moved here from Texas. But when you hear Juan and Rodríguez speak, it’s clear that Juan’s Spanish is improving fast.

Juan is getting good grades here, too, except in Spanish and History. He still cannot articulate his answers to his teachers. “Its kind of hard to explain it,” Juan says. “Like, when I don’t know how to say the words, I just try to explain it to them.”

But for most students, speaking isn’t the hardest part—it’s classroom comprehension.

Meet Ashley. She’s 11, and born and raised in Southern California. She just moved to Zacatecas with her parents, who were undocumented in the US. Ashley speaks Spanish perfectly, but has always done her reading and writing in English. She is struggling to read in Spanish and finds the overall transition “weird.”

Ashley’s younger brother, Yoel, is also having a hard time at it. But he’s relieved to be here with his older sister, and a cousin is here, too. Being together, speaking English in the schoolyard, it makes their new life in Mexico easier. And they keep in touch in English with their friends back in the US over Facebook.

Luis Roberto Castañeda directs Zacatecas’ Migration Institute. He says of the 13,000 or so kids who have lived in the US and are now in the Zacatecas school system, nearly all have some difficulty at school. And there are no national programs in Mexico to attend to these students’ needs. Castañeda says that when the US-born students cannot fully understand classes, they do mental translations back to English. It slows them down.

Like Castañeda, Acosta believes that his pilot project is more than learning English: It represents an effort to help US-born children feel more welcome in Mexico and tune their teachers to the fact that their students straddle two worlds.



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Bringing Back Nepal’s Minority Languages

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Linguist Mark Turin returns to Nepal, where he learned and documented the Thangmi language. Spoken by 30,000 people, Thangmi has many unique expressions but it is imperiled. The Nepalese government is trying to protect minority languages by introducing them into schools, but it may be too late: the children of many Thangmi speakers are choosing to speak more mainstream languages.



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The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.


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