The United Nations, with an aim to safeguard and preserve indigenous languages and archive the vast repository of sociocultural knowledge held by speakers of these languages, dedicated 2019 toward observing the link between language, development and reconciliation.
On March 21, President Cyril Ramaphosa affirmed the UN’s position by dedicating Human Rights Day to the celebration of indigenous languages as being a fundamental part of fostering a human rights culture. He said: “Language is an integral part of the identity of a people. It is at the heart of who they are, of their culture, of how they define themselves, and the most important legacy they pass onto their children.”
His words echoed the wisdom of Nelson Mandela when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
A people’s language is a heritage bequeathed to them by their ancestors, and if we want to understand the other, we must listen and respond to them in a way that is affirming and sees them as fully human. The isiZulu greeting, sawubona — we see you — is a perfect example of recognising the other. The plural greeting of sawubona creates space for all those who came before you, who live in you, and who are with you today. It acknowledges that your people are with you. When a person says sawubona, they affirm and honour that.
Concepts such as justice, dignity, belonging, identity and reconciliation carry different meanings and manifestations depending on the language employed and the cultural context in which they are expressed and applied.
It would be unjust, exclusionary and an infringement on another person’s dignity to ask of someone to be vulnerable and authentic in a space that does not include their home language.
It would be unfair to expect these people to contribute to the national reconciliation project in a language they cannot speak well and do not identify with.
Part of what we do as dialogue facilitators is to encourage and teach reflective practices and we do this through free-writing exercises, which have numerous psychological benefits such as releasing emotions, developing introspective skills, stimulating creativity and improving self-esteem.
But, during this activity something peculiar happens: in contrast to the conversations that were held in an indigenous language, participants consistently chose to write their thoughts in what is, technically, a foreign language — English. Furthermore, when participants were asked to write and reflect in their indigenous language, they struggled to do so and said how difficult it was to spell and construct sentences in their home language — English was easier.
As we listened to their frustrations, we were reminded of Rutgers University professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s words: “Coloniality survives colonialism.” We have become isolated from our home language. In most former British post-colonial states English is understood and experienced as the language of success. It is perceived as powerful enough to make one’s dreams come true on an international scale. English is also safer and more practical; you do not have to justify its use.
Herein the education and arts and culture departments and its linguistic task teams have fallen short.
Indigenous languages are under threat because of colonialism and colonial practices that caused the decimation of indigenous people and their cultures. Through policies of assimilation, dispossession of land and racist laws, indigenous languages around the world face the threat of extinction.
Globalisation, neo-imperialist practices and limited institutional will to protect indigenous languages further exacerbates this threat.
The systematic murder of our indigenous languages will result in a loss of history and knowledge. Being unable to speak your home language in the country of your birth fosters feelings of not belonging, as well as of loss of identity and history. If I cannot express myself fully then I am neither seen nor heard and understood.
If we want to decolonise our country, we must create situations that include and encourage the use of our indigenous languages. This is crucial to restoring indigenous languages as valuable, relevant and insightful.
Language is more than sets of words strung together for the purpose of communication. It includes an extensive and complex system of knowledge developed over millennia. Maldonado-Torres says: “Languages are not just cultural phenomena in which people find their identity; they are also the location where knowledge is inscribed.”
It is said that when a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it. Governmental bodies need to collaborate to revitalise and include indigenous languages, especially in the educational sector, in its administration of justice, and in socioeconomic developmental spheres.
Nosindiso Mtimkulu and Danielle Hoffmeester work at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s social change model project.
Published by Mail & Guardian