Sunday, September 20, 2020

The place of English, Setswana & minority languages

It is a fascinating arrangement with extreme but understandable tensions. The position of each of the three is hotly contested and rightly so since they are all socially and cultural necessary. I was educated through a system in which it was critical for one to pass English in order for them to pass O’level. At the time English was elevated above all subjects. It was a bizarre system in which if you failed the English subject but passed other subjects in English such as Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Geography, you automatically failed O’level. Although such an educational system is no longer in place, schools have barely changed. Some schools are still marked “You are entering the English speaking zone”. This supreme position of English is affected by forces beyond the curriculum. Nationally, English is the language of the media ÔÇô radio, television and newspapers are predominantly in English. All schools in Botswana are de facto English medium schools since instruction across all subjects (save for Setswana and French classes) is in English ÔÇô with the exception of a few elementary classes in certain government primary schools where instruction is in Setswana. There is therefore a false dichotomy between the so-called English-medium and Tswana-medium schools. A more accurate difference is that of private and state schools. In Botswana English is an official language with clear roles in Botswana’s parliament and legal domain. The place of English in Botswana’s schools and society is also in part influenced by international forces. With English competence, one is able to find employment and education internationally. Botswana has therefore embraced rightly English since it is in the strategic national interest.

The position of Setswana has been discussed before in some detail through this column. Setswana is Botswana’s national language which has the largest number of speakers and the widest national spread. Beyond native speaker usage, the language is used by some as a second or even a third language. Setswana is also a regional language with many native speakers in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Recently Setswana has also been selected by ACALAN, the languages arm of the African Union, for development and promotion as a cross border language. However, Setswana’s position, more than that of English, has largely been misunderstood and has received some resistance from some quarters nationally.

Elsewhere in this paper, Kapule David Mabuta, a member of RETENG Executive Committee, observes rightly that “Setswana has since independence been adopted as the lingua franca” but he observes wrongly that “this position has not been compromised.” What he ignores is the growing body of research that points to the erosion of Setswana usage in various public domains, including the traditionally safe ones such as the kgotla. This erosion is perceptible even among native speakers of the language who display negative attitudes towards it, compared to English ÔÇô a language with extensive educational and economic benefits. Since Mabuta makes this principal error of Setswana’s position, he follows it by a misdirected conclusion that threatens to stifle the debate on the role and function of Setswana at a national level. He concludes that “…to seek to generate a debate about lingua franca now is unnecessary”, a sorry conclusion that deserves to be ignored since it is based on a faulty premise. He then makes the second common mistake of conflating the argument for Setswana with the argument position against minority languages. He suggests that instead of making a case for Setswana we should “…be concerned about creating channels through which the views of those compatriots who cannot sufficiently express themselves in English and Setswana are also articulated and incorporated into the national development agenda”. Two responses are in order.

First, both points can and have been made without contradiction since they are not incompatible. This column, societies such as Tomela ya Puo, RETENG and academics such as Ramahobo, Batibo and Chebanne have eloquently made the argument that Mabuta argues should be made. Strategies of minority languages preservation have been advanced before, including the ones suggested by Mabuta.

However the argument for minority languages hasn’t principally been based on considerations for the few people who cannot understand Setswana. It has been based mainly on preserving the linguistic and cultural diversity of Botswana. Secondly, Mabuta should not pontificate on “what we should be concerned about”. As much as he asserts the right of individuals to speak in a language of their choice, he should equally defend the freedom of individuals to be concerned about matters which are pertinent to them. His RETENG organisation is concerned with the promotion of Botswana’s minority languages; the ACALAN Setswana commission is concerned about the status of Setswana as a regional language. Finally, Mabuta concludes by developing and destroying with lightning and thunder an argument which he masquerades as mine. He argues: “If we are to promote linguistic homogeneity or national homogeneity, we run the risk of escalating intolerance of marginalized languages and the rise in the culture of ultra-nationalism.” Mabuta knows that I don’t argue for linguistic homogeneity. He knows I relentlessly argue for the promotion of the national language and development of minority languages ÔÇô a position to which he is not averse. I don’t see what will engender intolerance if all Batswana are able to speak amongst themselves in their national tongue.

To argue that Batswana should be encouraged to learn and use the national language is not an argument against the promotion of minority languages ÔÇô that is a separate matter. To cry “intolerance”, “jingoist”, “marginalization” and “ultra-nationalism” every time someone argues for the development and use of the national language certainly is arguing comfortably beside the point. What we need to discuss with clarity is the place of English, Setswana and minority languages in Botswana ÔÇô hopefully with minimum name calling.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.