Tag Archives: South Africa

New Roles for Old Languages in South Africa

Linguist Mark Turin reports from South Africa, whose post-Apartheid constitution designates eleven languages as official. Since that constitution came into effect in 1997, English has become more popular than ever, Afrikaans has re-invented itself, while the government’s efforts to raise the status of languages like Xhosa and Zulu have succeeded– up to a point.

This is the second of a three-part series Turin did for the BBC. Part one, on the changing linguistic landscape in Nepal, is here.



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A Comeback For Africa’s Homegrown Languages?

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s podcast, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I talk language and Africa. We also consider food idioms, banana skins and robberies gone wrong.

  • Televised debates for Ghana’s upcoming presidential election have all been conducted in English, despite the fact that English is understood by an estimated 20% of Ghanaians. Critics say the debates penalize candidates with poor English, effectively turning them into linguistic beauty contests. Now there are calls for future campaigns to include debates in the Twi language/dialect, which is far more widely spoken than English.
  • Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has co-written a thesaurus for his mother tongue, Nkore-Kiga (also known as Runyankore/Rukiga). Museveni says Ugandans favour English, along with Arabic and Swahili, over their neglected indigenous tongues.
  • Gabon is the latest Francophone country in Africa to consider switching its allegiance to English. If it does, it would follow Rwanda, which in 2009 switched its language of instruction in schools from French to English. The future for French in Africa looks uncertain at best.
  • South Africans are debating what to call President Zuma’s newly refurbished home. The US media would call the multi-acre, multi-building home a ‘compound,’ but that word has unfortunate connotations from the Apartheid period. Calling it ‘Zumaville,’ as it’s popularly known, may imply corruption, so the South African Broadcasting Corporation is directing its reporters and presenters to refer to this place as the president’s ‘residence.’
  • Having the peach, eating cold rice, other food-based idioms from around the world. Some of the best of these can be found in Adam Jacot de Boinod’s wonderful Tingo books.


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Learning in two languages, and new Zulu words

A back-to-school edition about learning in a second language. We spend some time in the classroom with fourth grade teacher Stephanie Blanco of  Gauldin Elementary School in Downey, CA to explore the challenges of teaching English language learners. ELL came to the fore after 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.  In ELL classrooms,  everyone — whether they or not they are proficient in English — learns in English.

Gauldin has a good record of improving ELL students’ English skills, in marked contrast to many of the schools in neighboring Los Angeles. The situation there is so dire that the the U.S. Department of Education has launched a investigation to determine if if the Los Angeles Unified School District is violating the civil rights of English Language Learners.  The feds are also taking a look at Boston schools. (A few months ago, Carol Hills and I  discussed Arizona’s decision to penalize ELL teachers whose accents are deemed too foreign. Arizona is still defending its policy, which itself has come under federal scrutiny.)

Also in the podcast, a Creole-speaking Haitian girl newly arrived in New York City enrols in a high school, with help from a community group in Brooklyn. The girl fled Haiti after the earthquake there earlier this year. Like most Haitians, she wants to master the language and stay here permanently.  But she only has a U.S. visitor visa.Then it’s back to California as an Arabic immersion program gets underway at FAME a public charter school in Fremont, CA. Reporter Hana Baba provided us with a nice slideshow of scenes from the school, including the photo above of school founder Maram Alaiwat. Not surprisingly, many of the students at this K-10th grade school are of Arab and/or Muslim descent.  More surprising is that the school has opened its doors to the FBI. The bureau offers FAME 5th graders the chance to become “junior special agents” .

Finally, the first Zulu-English dictionary in 40 years has just been published in South Africa. Some English speakers already know a few words of Zulu (also known as isiZulu) — words like ubuntu. Zulu has also borrowed from other South African languages such as Afrikaans, and many Zulu words offer their own linguistic takes on apartheid and AIDS. We talk with the publishing manager of Oxford University Press South Africa.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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The language of the beautiful game

At the World Cup in South Africa, it’s not just Brazil vs Spain and Argentina vs Everybody Else. It’s Bafana Bafana vs Les Éléphants, soccer vs football, cleats vs boots and the coach vs the gaffer.

We kick off with a story on the new adidas ball and its globally correct corporate name:  Jabulani, which means celebrate in the isiZulu language. There is, famously, a new ball for every World Cup.  Each time, the new ball is presented — and heavily marketed — as a engineering masterpiece and an advance on the last one. Maybe: the new  certainly moves through the air faster than its predecessors (which include the horrifyingly management-speak name, the Teamgeist from 2006 ). On the Jabulani, there are eleven lines and eleven colors, representing South Africa’s eleven official langages. Those linguistically-inspired lines create slight ridges on the ball, which are  controversial. Many World Cup goalkeepers think the ridges will cause the ball to swerve in the air, making it more difficult for the goalies to position themselves for saves. Of course, if that’s the case, most people — apart from goalies — will be happy: more goals, more TV viewers, more money. Fancy that: linguistic diversity acting as a fig leaf for commercialism. And just think if South Africa had 111 official languages…

There are thousands of websites and blogs to choose between for  following the World Cup and the cultural hoopla surrounding it. For stuff you won’t see anywhere else I recommend Davy Lane’s one-man South African show.  It’s full of smart, funny, non-touristy, interviews with locals. Davy also sports a not-so-mild obsession with Uruguay and its colors. Also, check out my colleague Jeb Sharp’s latest podcast on soccer and French colonialism.

Next in the podcast, a story on the race to rename streets in South African cities. The old names — usually in Afrikaans or English — are often associated with the apartheid era. As noted in previous podcast/blog posts here and here, naming and renaming places is a way of  shaping history, of controlling how it is told.

Next, we focus on a few words rooted in South Africa’s eleven official languages that may go global after this tournament. One already has: vuvuzela, even if most non-South Africans aren’t crazy about the sound this plastic horn makes.  One other word from the African continent that’s gone global, at least in the francophone world: Drogbacité. This means a spirit of reconciliation and humility, named after Ivory Coast superstar –and Africa’s finest player Didier Drogba. Three years ago, Drogba used his celebratory status to help jump-start peace talks between warring factions in Ivory Coast. Quite how central a role Drogba played is up for discussion, but suffice to say, the expression Drogbacité stuck.

Finally, a meditation on a US-English confrontation off the soccer field (or football pitch: take your pick). It is the linguistic battle over soccer/football terminology. It speaks to the nature of the often awkward, not-so-special relationship between England and the United States. England is represented here by New York-based writer Luke Dempsey; the US by broadcaster and former national team goalkeeper Shep Messing.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Nasty speech in the Netherlands, bitter truths in South Africa, and goofy government speech in Denmark

After Joe Wilson’s “you lie!”, after Kanye West at the MTV awards, after Serena Williams’ outburst at the US Open, you may think:  enough already with nasty speech! Well, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. This week, a report on a series of Dutch cartoon that are offensive – really offensive. Deliberately so, according to the Dutch-based Arab group behind them. The group claims that Dutch law exercises a double standard when it comes to speech and religion: while it often censors anti-semitic speech – like the cartoons in question – it tolerates anti-Muslim speech.

Then, gadfly-journalist Max du Preez.

vrye weekblad

Du Preez has been upsetting his fellow South Africans for decades – first, he upset his father by becoming a communist, then he upset the apartheid regime with his muckracking journalism. He edited Vrye Weekblad the only Afrikaans-language paper that exposed the murders, beatings and corruption of the racist government.  That upset almost an entire people: du Preez’s people,  South Africa’s Afrikaners. Only after the end of apartheid, when morality ceased to be a moveable feast, did du Preez’s father speak to him again.

These days, du Preez has new enemies: the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which fired him; former president Thabo Mbeki who du Preez called a womanizer; and agricultural giant Monsanto, which du Preez says is ruining rural  South Africa by spreading genetically modified crops.

Finally, government free speech. This doesn’t come up much. Governments oversee free speech laws; they rarely get caught up in their own free speech shenanigans. Not the Danish government. Not Denmark’s  tourist bureau. For its latest edgy advertizing campaign the bureau staged a faux one night stand between a young blonde Danish woman and a foreign man with apparently no name, and no nationality. Johnny Foreigner, as it were.  Here’s the ad:

This was supposed to be a come-on to foreign visitors; instead it had Danish politicians trying to curb the speech of their own government.

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