Language: An emotive issue

Why is language such an emotive issue? Primarily because it goes to the heart of what we are as speaking beings, as Jacques Lacan would no doubt retort. Language is what differentiates between humans and other animals insofar as it is a symbolic system where every signifier (word, image, or gesture) corresponds with a signified (a conceptual meaning or meanings at denotative as well as connotative levels). This is crucially important, because it explains my statement that we differ from other animals in this respect.

As some readers would understandably object, other animals do SEEM to have language. Yes, but to be more accurate, they communicate, although not with language as described above. Bees communicate by performing a ‘dance’ to indicate the direction of flowers, for instance. Birds communicate by means of various (non-human) tweets, ants communicate by exchanging chemicals, whales and dolphins communicate through high-pitched ‘squeaks’, and so on. BUT – and this is crucial – human language is not bound to a specific time and place like other animals’ communicative utterances or ‘signals’.

Through oral and written language humans can communicate about things and events not restricted to that particular time and place. Perhaps dolphins do that too – their communication system is highly complex – but as far as we know they do not have the external manifestation of it, namely writing. Humans can read what was written more than 2000 years ago because of the signifier/signified split: the words of a Plato text on paper transport readers back through time and space to grasp, conceptually, what Plato’s arguments meant in his own world, and what they mean for us today.

Because of this character of human language, our signifiers (words, images, gestures) also function as the repository for what we value. Think of what certain names – like your beloved’s, or your children’s – mean to you, or what certain writers’ work, like Antjie Krog’s, Zakes Mda’s, or William Gibson’s, means. More broadly, think of what the language in which one’s culture is embedded means to you, from poetry and music to educational, psychological or political language. I love Leonard Cohen’s songs, for example, and get quite emotional when I hear his magnificent ‘Hallelujah’.

The first language one learns as a child – your ‘mother-tongue – is usually the first medium through which you get to know the world with everything it comprises, from people and animals to plants, oceans and forests. It is therefore also the language that usually evokes the most distinctive emotional response in you in certain situations. I recall such a response in myself and my children – who were raised in Afrikaans – when they were still young and we were exploring the children’s museum in Boston (USA). Suddenly, right next to us, someone addressed her children in Afrikaans, and we looked up in astonishment, suddenly feeling ‘at home’ in a very American environment. Because I grew up on a farm, I speak some isiXhosa, and even now, when I address people in this language – at filling stations, for example – the affirmative emotional response, accompanied by broad smiles, is unmistakable. And when I hear the isiXhosa lullaby, Thula Babana, it transports me back to my youth on the farm.

Why? Because one’s ‘own language’ – the one closest to you – is inextricably and intimately bound up with your being human. Recognising it by addressing people in their mother tongue is therefore a way of affirming their humanity. Nothing strange about that. This does not mean, of course, that one can, or should, only communicate in your mother tongue; on the contrary, as research on monolingualism as opposed to multilingualism has shown, people who speak more than one language benefit in many ways, particularly as far as greater flexibility of thinking is concerned, let alone an appreciation of ‘otherness’ or ‘culturally different others’.

Because one values one’s own language, individuals and communities have gone out of their way to develop, expand, diversify and enrich these languages. Poetry and other literary genres bear testimony to this, as does writing in one’s own language in various disciplines. It is well-known that Latin was the medium of instruction and writing in the universities that originated in Europe in the Middle Ages, besides which Greek was also used to some degree because of its ancient legacy. In the late Middle Ages and early modern period this changed when certain writers started writing in their own languages, such as German and French – Martin Luther translated the Bible into German; Meister Eckhart started writing philosophy in German, and René Descartes similarly started writing philosophy in French. Consequently, today not only philosophy, but other disciplines too, are written and read in many, if not most of the world’s languages. This is hard work, and requires individuals who sometimes have to coin new words and phrases in their mother tongues for terminology that does not yet exist in its domain.

My own mother tongue is Afrikaans, and although I write mostly in English in order to reach a wider audience, I still write and publish regularly in Afrikaans journals, both in South Africa and in countries, like Belgium, where Afrikaans is appreciated because of its literary and (human-) scientific value. My reason for continuing this practice is that Afrikaans is a fully-fledged literary and scientific language, and it is worth contributing to the tradition it has built up painstakingly in the course of more than a century.

It is therefore misguided on the part of the ruling party, and a great pity for indigenous African language-speakers, that it seems hell-bent on creating an educational environment of English monolingualism, which is linguistically and culturally impoverishing for IsiZulu, isiXhosa, and other indigenous mother tongue-speakers in South Africa. Instead, the ANC government should be promoting all of the eleven ‘official’ languages at school as well as university level, lest they fail to develop its latent semantic and semiotic capacities to the full.

I recall a black student asking me in class one day why they were taught by white people, in English, instead of by black lecturers, in their own languages (in his case, isiXhosa). In response I told him about Latin being the medium of tuition during medieval times, and about people, like Descartes, accepting the arduous task of laying a foundation for philosophy in French and German, and much later, in Afrikaans. Then I pointed out to him that this was a challenge that he and other indigenous African language-speakers faced: to develop their own languages in the same manner.

Hence, instead of persisting in its attempts to torpedo Afrikaans as medium of instruction at universities like UFS, and at schools like Overvaal by unnecessarily trying to impose so-called English-speaking students on the school, the ANC should allow such universities and schools to continue serving the Afrikaans community. Furthermore, it should be going out of its way to promote the establishment of schools where the medium of instruction is primarily – if not exclusively – an African indigenous language. Failing that, these languages will not develop, as they can, and should, into fully-fledged literary and scientific languages the way Afrikaans did. There are intelligent people in the ANC, like minister Naledi Pandor, who should be driving such a project.

I fully realise that English is being prioritised because of its perceived importance as international lingua franca, and as the linguistic means of empowerment globally. This is understandable for pragmatic reasons. But ironically, by impoverishing the life-worlds of African children by depriving them of their own languages in the classroom, they are ultimately shooting themselves in the proverbial foot: the more African languages are developed, the better African students will ultimately be able to make the transition to English, as well as other languages, because of multilingual enrichment through life-world translation.

I write from experience. Because I was raised on a very Afrikaans (and isiXhosa) farm, it was only really in high school that I encountered English more broadly, as well as German, and I fell in love with English and German literature the same way as I had fallen in love with Afrikaans literature before that. Imagine the rich resonances between and among these languages, which enabled me to study all three at university, discovering philosophy along the way. My parents were not rich, so I had to apply for a bursary cum loan, which I had to pay back when I started working as a junior lecturer at university. But the point is that, with a firm basis in Afrikaans, I could strike out to discover and master other languages. The ANC should remind itself that it has the duty to create the educational space for all South African children to do so in their mother tongues. Perhaps then these languages will develop as Afrikaans has, and still does.