Language Vitality in South Africa

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

41 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Language Vitality
2.1 Different attitudes
2.1.1 Language policy – Official attitudes towards the 11 official languages
2.1.2 Personal attitudes towards the languages
2.2 Absolute number of speakers
2.3 Proportion of speakers within the total population
2.4 Trends in existing domains
2.4.1 Current situation in South African language domains
2. 4. 2 Example of an army camp
2.5 Response to new domains and media
2.6 Language in Education
2.7 Intergenerational Language Transmission
2.7.1 Categorising South Africa’s official languages
2.7.2 Southern Khoisan in South Africa – An Example of language death and its aftermath
2.8 How to use the nine factors of language vitality

3. A project

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The rapid endangerment and death of many minority languages across the world is a matter of widespread concern, not only among linguists and anthropologists but among all concerned with issues of cultural identity in an increasingly globalized culture. […] By some counts, only 600 of the 6,000 or so languages in the world are ‘safe’ from the threat of extinction. On some reckonings, the world will, by the end of the twenty-first century, be dominated by a small number of major languages (Crystal 2000: II).

Statistics say that almost every fourteen days a language dies and that more than half of the languages that are spoken on earth today will have disappeared by the turn of the century (cf. National Geographic).[1] Today there might be about 6,800 “living” languages around the world. The majority of these languages, about 90%, are only spoken by less than 100,000 people and many tongues have even fewer speakers. There are supposedly even 46 languages which have only one speaker left. (cf. Connor 2003)[2] If we let the languages keep on disappearing like that there will only be a dozen or less languages left in the end (cf. Ostler 2000)[3].

Language is an important part of a person’s identity. It stands for diversity, freedom, history, and culture. Language death is not just a theoretical bereavement of language data but it is also a loss of human knowledge, of people’s stories and identities and of priceless diversity. Therefore it is very important that the countries and the people are able to get reliable information about their minority languages.

African languages are the simplest, fairest, most democratic, economic and achievable way to improve African lives and livelihood through the application of knowledge, education, science and technology. African languages are the most important African source of traditional and future social change, economic development and individual self-realization. (Cantalupo)[4]

South Africa is very often known as the “rainbow nation”, a metaphor which was renewed by Nelson Mandela who used it to describe the countries cultural diversity (cf. SomaliPress)[5]. With Nelson Mandela a new South African democracy was born on April the 27 in 1994 (cf. Beukes 2004: 1)[6]. The country officially became a multilingual society and still today it is experiencing a unique language situation (cf. Fernand de Varennes, Claire Murray, 2001: 58). South Africa is an immensely diverse country, not only home to many different cultures and people but also home to many different indigenous and modern languages. People know that the South African way of life is very much connected to their language diversity and the country is trying to protect this diversity against all odds. With 11 official languages the country has a very special language situation and it can be a role model for many other countries. There are seven indigenous African languages which have gotten an official status in recent years but the country also promotes the use of English as a lingua franca. Therfore they are trying to link their past with the future. Ethnologue lists 31 languages in South Africa. For four of those languages there is no speaker known anymore and 24 of them are still alive and spoken in the country. The remaining three languages do not have any mother-tongue speaker left. (cf. Ethnologue)[7] Therefore South Africa has already lost some of its language potential and is now trying to safe as many indigenous languages as possible.

There are 24 languages which are regularly used by more than 44.8 million South Africans and almost 80 % of the South African population use one of the African languages at home. (cf. Beukes 2004: 3)[8] “The most commonly- spoken home language is isiZulu, which is spoken by 23.8 % of the population, followed by isiXhosa (17.6 %) and Afrikaans (13.3 %)” (Beukes 2004: 4)[9] Although English is the home language of only 8.2 % of the South African population it is still used as a lingua franca throughout the nation. (cf. Beukes 2004: 4)[10] The eleven official languages are used by 99% of the country’s population and those languages are all supposed to have equal rights. Belonging to these languages are English and Afrikaans, and nine other African languages: “Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, and isiZulu”. (cf. Beukes 2004: 5)[11] There are also many other languages spoken in South Africa like for example Arabic, German, Greek, Hindi, Tamil, Hebrew and many more. (cf. Henrard 2001: 80)[12] Some European languages like French, German, and Portuguese are used in South Africa but they are not nearly as influential as English. (cf. Mesthrie 2002: 38)

The historical development of South Africa has brought the question of language forward. The country became aware of its unique language situation and the chances and problems which are connected to it. After Mandela many people developed a greater interest in smaller languages. The paper is going to explore the language vitality of some of the 11 official South African languages, dealing with the problem of language endangerment/death and language reviltalisation. It is going to be seen whether the multilingualism which is propagandized by the government is or can be realised in real life. Due to the lack of valid information for many of the smaller indigenous Afrcian langugeas the paper will mostly look at the situation of Afrikaans and English, only rarely concidering the other languages in much detail.

2. Language Vitality

The following theoretical information and the evaluative factors of language vitality are based upon a document that was submitted to the ‘International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Programme Safeguarding of Endangered Languages’ from 2003 Due to the expert group there are six major factors which can be used to evaluate the vitality of a language. It is important to be aware of all of the factors because it is possible that a language might seem completely safe in one respect but needs help in another.[13]

2.1 Different attitudes

The first two factors which will be dealt with are the ‘Governmental and Institutional Language attitudes and policies, including official status and use’ and the ‘Community members attitudes toward their own language’. (cf. UNESCO 2003: 13-15)[14] First it is going to be looked at the official language policy in South Africa and after that it is going to be dealt with personal attitudes toward the different languages.

2.1.1 Language policy – Official attitudes towards the 11 official languages

On the one hand side all eleven official languages can theoretically be called equally supported according to the classification (table 1)[15] given by the UNESCO (cf. UNESCO 2003: 14)[16]. They all have official status and are protected by the South African constitution. On the other hand side most of the indigenous African languages are dominated by English and to a lesser extent by Afrikaans in the public domain. Therefore their degree of support can also be called ‘passive assimilation’.

The concept of how to manage this unique language situation in South Africa has been captured in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. (cf. Beukes 2004: 6)[17] The country has “[…] the most progressive constitutional language provisions on the African continent.” (Beukes 2004: 5) It openly proclaims multilingualism. (cf. Beukes 2004: 5)[18] The new Constitution of the post-apartheid South Africa is trying to protect its indigenous languages and tries to overcome the inferior status that those languages have had to deal with in the past. (cf. Henrad 2001: 81)[19] “The proclamation of 11 official languages in the 1996 constitution has important symbolic value, particularly for the speakers of the nine African languages, who where formerly deprived of such status” (cf. Henrard 2001: 83)[20]. By granting some of the African languages the status of an official language, it makes it much easier for the indigenous people to keep their languages alive. They have the chance to communicate in their home language and they have many reasons to teach those languages to their children because they will also have the chance to use them in the future. Bilingualism and Multilingualism might be a great chance for the country to keep its language diversity alive and to promote a language policy that embraces mutual acceptance. To protect and enlarge the newly cherished multilingualism they have created the ‘Pan South African Language Board’ which is supposed to bring all eleven languages forward. (cf. Beukes 2004: 5)[21]

The language policy of South Africa is primarily based on section 6 of the constitution which provides a framework for multilingualism. It requests that all languages shall be treated equally and must be granted the same “parity of esteem” and it also requests that the government takes control over the regulation of official language use. (cf. Neville 2000: 7)[22] South Africans should therefore be ensured of their “[…] freedom to exercise their language rights by using any official language of their choice […]” in many different contexts, especially in the field of government services, programs and public service. (Neville 2000: 7)[23] The constitution also guards everyone against being discriminated on the basis of language, it grants everyone the privilege to choose one of the eleven official languages in which he or she wants to be taught in at school, it grants communities the right to use their language and culture freely, and people who get into trouble with the law are entitled to getting the information they need in a language they understand. (cf. Beukes 2004: 6)[24] On the basis of granting everyone equal opportunities the government also has to make sure that all official documents must be printed in at least six of the official languages. It is mandatory to have the documents in English, Afrikaans, Xitsonga and Tshivenda and in at least one language of the Nguni language group and one of the Sotho language group. (cf. Beukes 2004: 10)[25] This language policy is also supposed to encourage South Africans to learn many different languages with special regard to the South African indigenous languages. Multilingualism is to be promoted as a sign of national unity and multiculturalism. The basis of the South African language policy lies in the protection of a linguistic and cultural diversity, in the support of democracy through the promotion of language equity, and in the viewing of multilingualism as a chance. (cf. Neville 2000: 7/8)[26]

The constitution’s directives have paved the way for government and its executive arm (i.e. designated government departments) to translate the document’s status and corpus planning intent through a systematic process of policy development and operationalisation. (Beukes 2004: 6)[27]

Having many different languages in the country is supposed to be seen as an advantage and not as an obstacle. It suggests that the country would loose its spirit and its soul if it would loose its diversity. What they have to make sure now, is that everything they have planed so far will be put into action.

The flipside to the policy of multilingualism and language rights is the political pragmatism of which the post-apartheid language policy in South Africa has been accused of by some scholars. They say that by promoting nine official African languages the government got the chance to minimize the role of Afrikaans in society. Before the new language system African people were very proud of the status of Afrikaans and they guarded the language against the growing status of English but with the new language constitution they do not recognize the fact that their language is gradually loosing in status and they can not do anything against it because it all happens under the cloak of promoting all nine African languages equally. (cf. Orman 2008: 93)

2.1.2 Personal attitudes towards the languages

In the case of South Africa it is really hard to classify the individual official languages according to table 2.[28] Concerning the indigenous African languages you have to evaluate the real life situation much more detailed in order to find out whether many, some or even only a few members of the community support language maintenance and how many are indifferent or even want to loose their native languages. Answers would probably be very different when you ask different generations of people. As we have already seen many young people do not see the importance of maintaining their indigenous languages anymore and they sometimes only do so as a favour to the older generation. Still there are organisations and groups who are trying to promote language maintenance against all odds. Afrikaans is supported by most members of the languages community and English can probably be said to have the support from all of its speech-community members.

In January 2000 the first conference on African languages and literatures took place in Asmara, Africa, and was titled Against all Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st century. Many people from all over Africa came together and talked about the status of the African Languages, about African Literature, education and publishing. They expressed their conclusions and their wishes in a declaration which emphasizes the importance of keeping all the African languages alive. (cf. The Asmara Declaration 2000 )[29]

Their declaration gives an insight on how important the African languages are for many people. It underlines how important it is to preserve the knowledge about and the usage of the African languages throughout the whole continent. It also shows that the people are very much concerned about what is happening to their languages and they show that they stand together for the greater good.[30]

“Though there are eleven official languages in South Africa, many people are forsaking their mother tongues to speak in an American-English mode considered ‘cool’ by their peers.” (Mesthrie 2002: 43) Therefore the high status of English “against” the African Languages in South Africa, which a lot of African people have internalised through the experiences of the apartheid era, is very important to the discussion of language policy and planning. As Kristin Henrard puts it in her paper about Language Rights and Minorities in South Africa all the different linguistic population groups have to be considered linguistic minorities with the possible exception of English. (cf. Henrard 2001: 81)[31] The special status of English has developed over time. English has been one of the two only official languages in South Africa from 1910 to 1994. (The other official language during that period has been Dutch.) That situation has led to a promotion of the English language within the country. (cf. Henrard 2001: 81/79)[32]

English has also played a very important role in the making of the new democracy in South Africa. People are connecting this language to the liberation movement, which choose English as its cross ethnic lingua franca. But still there are many South Africans who are not able to understand English or use it in daily life. It mainly belongs to the ‘new elite’ of the country and is used in official business and commerce. (cf. Beukes 2004: 17)[33]

The work of government is conducted virtually entirely in English and the language of our culturally diverse Parliament is almost exclusively English. Many senior politicians stay away from African language radio stations, presumably because they perceive those audiences as not sophisticated enough. (referring to Sunday Times, 25 April 2004, taken from Beukes 2004: 14)[34]

De facto English still seems to be the only language of power which is used in many decision making processes excluding the majority of the South African people. (cf. Beukes 2004: 17)[35] With English being so much connected to the liberation movement in the heads of the people and with English being a world language of a certain status it is very difficult to promote the other languages next to it. People know that they can use English almost anywhere they want, they know that with the English language comes a certain prestige and they probably want to be part of the “modern society” which most often speaks English. The people and the country have gone through centuries of oppression and now they want to be part of the “new South Africa” and connected to that new world is English. Therefore it is very hard to let people see again how wonderful and important it might be to keep their history alive by keeping their languages alive. “According to Heugh (2000), [a] survey suggests that about 36% of South Africans can understand English, 30% understand isiZulu, 29% Afrikaans and 21% isiXhosa” (Beukes 2004: 17)[36] On the basis of the survey Heugh suggests that there are four lingua francas emerging in South Africa.

2.2 Absolute number of speakers

The third factor which determines language vitality concerns the absolute number of speakers (cf. UNESCO 2003: 8)[37]. The question is how many people are needed to speak a language fluently in order to guarantee its survival? It is impossible to answer this question easily. There are many factors which have to be considered. One can not just say that for example 800 people, 500 or 1000 people are needed because it always depends on how those people live. You would have to find out whether they live closely to each other, in what kind of area they live, whether they have the chance to communicate with each other, what language policies are promoting or hindering the language to flourish again, whether children learn the language as their first language or at all etc. (cf. Crystal 2000: 12)

If we concentrate on the sole number of absolute speakers in 2001, table 3[38] shows that in the case of South Africa languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans are rather safe from extinction whereas isiNdebele does have the fewest speakers and could be considered endangered. It becomes clear that nothing can really be proven by this kind of method. You can not get any valid information by taking only the numbers. What you can see is which language might be used more often by the South African population. You therefore can use that information to make assumptions about its level of endangerment but you will always have to take other factors into consideration. The same can be said when you look at the percentages of people who have whichever language as their mother tongue, which can be seen in table 4.[39] The numbers do not give any information about how the languages are used among the speakers, if they are transmitted from one generation to the other or what attitude the speakers or the country have towards the language. You also can not see if the speakers live close to each other, like in one part of the country, were it would be much easier to use the language regularly or if they are spread throughout the country in small villages were it would be much harder to communicate in that language. The number of speakers per language can only be used as an indication to whether one should look at the language situation more closely or whether there are so many speakers that it would be safe to assume that the language is safe from extinction.

2.3 Proportion of speakers within the total population

The fourth factor that can be looked at is the ‘Proportion of speakers within the Total Population”. In that case one would have to look at a specific group to find out how many people of that group speak the language. (cf. UNESCO 2003: 9)[40]

The classification (table 5)[41] given by the UNESCO expert group demonstrates six different grades which can be applied to access language vitality by using the number of speakers in a population. In a monolingual country the language spoken would be safe because all people would be able to speak the official language. In a multilingual society like South Africa which has many different official languages it becomes rather difficult to have a language that is spoken by all people equally. For South Africa we can only start at the level of unsafe or even definitely unsafe if we consider the number of speakers per language given in table 3[42]. In my opinion three of the eleven official languages, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu, are used by a majority of the people. All the other African languages are only spoken by a minority of the population and therefore all of them have to be considered severely endangered according to the classification given by the UNESCO. According to this graduation, only using the proportion of speakers, English has to be graded as severely endangered too.


[1] National Geographic:, 10th of March 2011.

[2] Connor, Steve:, 10th of March 2011.

[3] Ostler, Rosemarie:, 10th of March 2011.

[4] Cantalupo, Charles:, 1st of April. 2011

[5] Somalipress:, August 3rd 2011

[6] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[7], 20. of July 2011.

[8] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Henrard, Kristin:, 28. of March 2011.

[13] UNESCO:, 10th of August 2011

[14] Ibid.

[15] See Addendum A

[16] UNESCO:, 10th of August 2011

[17] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[18] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[19] Henrard, Kristin:, 28. of March 2011.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[22] Advisory Panel on Language Policy 2000:, 5th of August 2011.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[25] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[26] Advisory Panel on Language Policy 2000:, 5th of August 2011.

[27] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[28] See for Addendum B

[29] Asmara Declaration:, 28th of March 2011.

[30] See for Addendum C

[31] Henrard, Kristin:, 28. of March 2011.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Beukes, Anne-Marie:, 28. of March 2011.

[37] UNESCO:, 10th of August 2011

[38] See for Addendum: D

[39] See for Addendum: E

[40] UNESCO:, 10th of August 2011

[41] See for Addendum F

[42] See Addendum D

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Language Vitality in South Africa
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Hauptseminar: English in Contact
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language, vitality, south, africa
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Anika Kehl (Author), 2011, Language Vitality in South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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