24 October 2005

Talk of the tongue

One of the key issues in debates on multilingualism concerns the ability of indigenous African languages to be used in scientific and, more broadly, scholarly discourse. Given this country's history, and in particular the history of marginalisation of our indigenous languages, it is not surprising that the question is one that is emotionally charged, and often the subject of spirited debate.

The report on the recent debate on multiligualism at UCT Multilingualism revisited (Monday Paper, October 17-23), presented in a somewhat ambiguous and potentially misleading way the views that I expressed on the utility of African languages as languages of scientific discourse. It ascribes to me the view "while the grammatical and syntactic structure of scientific language is relatively simple and arguably easy to transfer to African languages, the precision of the vocabulary would provide a far greater resource challenge because new terms would have to be coined". Thus one may be led to conclude from this that the goal of using African languages in scientific communication is unattainable in any realistic sense.

What I actually had to say was as follows:

The scientific enterprise requires the precise and logical communication of ideas, using a vocabulary - technical and non-technical - that is commonly understood. Thus, typically, scientific language, as encountered in the classroom or in journals, is grammatically and syntactically simple, but with a rich and specialised vocabulary. High literary quality is not a prerequisite, and is not common, though it is appreciated when encountered.

A question that we face concerns the feasibility of using languages such as isiXhosa or Setswana as academic or scientific languages. This is a somewhat patronising question about whether our indigenous languages are sufficiently mature and developed to become the means of communication in sophisticated contexts such as in science and technology.

The answer as far as I am concerned is: without question. The South African indigenous languages are all formally grounded grammatically, and have the ability to be used to express complex ideas. It may be that much of the vocabulary necessary for communication in one discipline or another is incomplete, but this is a situation to be found in most languages in the world at any given time: as new scientific ideas take root, new terms are coined in one language with translations into other languages. Think of words such as electron, gene, polymer - these are all relatively recent arrivals in the English language. So I see no barriers of this kind to the use and development of indigenous languages as languages of scholarship.

I deliberately separated the question of the capacity of African languages to be used in scientific contexts - the question addressed above - from that of the preferred medium of teaching and learning in the sciences at university level. Proficiency in English is so central to success in the worlds of sciences and technology that we cannot afford to deviate from the goal of ensuring that our graduates are able to communicate effectively and confidently in English. This is, however, not incompatible with the goal of building a linguistically inclusive climate in all aspects of life and work at UCT. To this end, the project initiated in the the Department of Statistical Sciences, in collaboration with the Multiligualism Education Project, and which is aimed at the development by students of multilingual glossaries and abstracts, is to be welcomed.

Daya Reddy
Dean, Faculty of Science

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.