African languages made to fit

21 November 2005

Bilingual education in South Africa is a no-brainer these days.

Just about everyone agrees that education in the mother tongue - alongside an introduction to all-powerful English - is a must for, at the very least, the seven years of primary education. If questions do remain, they're about resources.

Another big bone of contention, though, is the suitability of African languages to the polysyllabic demands of science terminology, especially at higher-education levels. African languages, say some, aren't sophisticated enough for the task, and just won't pass muster.

Rubbish, says Professor Neville Alexander, director of the UCT-based Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). "Conceptual nonsense. We've shown it can be done."

A recent seminar hosted by PRAESA's Terminology Unit bears out Alexander's words. Here, Dr Temba Dlodlo, a senior lecturer in the Applied Physics Department of the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe, showed an extract on thermodynamics that he had, graphs and all, translated from English into Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, and isiNdebele). For this, Dlodlo used only existing Nguni words or combinations thereof.

At the same meeting, Sihle Shembe, a member of the IsiZulu Collaborators Group that develops isiZulu terms for all the fields of study at school level, shared his experiences from a very successful pilot project he ran while lecturing at the former University of Durban-Westville. For this study, which turned into a popular research paper, Shembe taught chemistry in isiZulu to some of his students, like Dlodlo using only words already found in the language.

These seminal works are proof enough that instruction in African languages is doable, regardless of the subject or the level, said Dlodlo. "It is necessary, not just possible."

Everyone agrees.

"It's a matter of experience that no country ever excelled when it was compelled to use a second, third or even a foreign language as it's main language of creativity and productivity," says Alexander.

But it will take time to gear up African languages with the educational accoutrements such as teachers, books and the like. Anything from 50 to 75 years, even longer, in fact. History shows that it took 50 years to bring Afrikaans, even with all the weight and resources of the apartheid state behind it and with no real competition, on par with English, which still ruled the roost.

"It's a slow process, but it's a process we've got to start," says Alexander.

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