Multilingualism: global phenomenon with lessons for local reality

Anjonet Jordaan -- Tue, 05/12/2015 - 16:27

Multilingualism: global phenomenon with lessons for local reality

The UPSET (Understanding and Processing Language in Complex Settings) Research Focus on the the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University recently hosted a group of students from Potsdam University in Germany to discuss multilingualism or simply how the coexistence of more than one language in a particular space affects both the languages and the users.

Arne Peters, a PhD student from Potsdam University delivered a lecture during this visit on the multilingual context in Europe and particularly his research into the relationship of English en Irish in Ireland.

Though South Africa’s 11 official languages may be a challenge, the European Union must provide for the linguistic needs of 24 official and working languages, as well as 3 main languages. His research shows that language policy often doesn’t keep up with what happens in reality.

A great case in point is the official position of Irish compared to English. In Ireland it is considered to be the first official language of the country and given equal representation, despite census data showing that only 2-3% Irish speakers remain compared to 80% English speakers.


Why is research on multilingualism important?

On the Vaal Triangle Campus Prof Susan Coetzee-van Rooy does research on multilingualism in the Vaal Triangle region: “…it is easy to see how research about bi- and multilingualism is important to the world. Let me mention two important applications that flow from research that aims to understand the nature of bi- and multilingualism. From the language education perspective, it is important to understand how and why people add specific languages to their repertoires. From a political perspective, it is important to understand how to create social cohesion in contexts where outdated concepts like one country, one nation and one language do not hold true anymore.”


What lessons can languages in South Africa learn from Irish?

The scientific definition of a language under threat is that there must less than 10 000 users of the language. No language in South Africa is therefor under threat – even the smaller languages have more than one million users.

Meanwhile the use of languages other than English is not really being promoted in the private or family domain. Afrikaans has a strong presence as a literary language; as a language used in music; and as a language used for teaching and learning from nursery school to tertiary education. Afrikaans is widely used as a classroom language at university even though the higher education function of Afrikaans as language of instruction is currently under threat.

The other African languages are not being developed as languages of instruction at school or higher education; this means that, even though they are not under threat due to their wide usage in South Africa, these languages are not being developed to include higher level functions.

“I see stable multilingualism under African language users – because different languages are used in different domains. I also see stable Afrikaans-English bilingualism – because Afrikaans-speakers are increasingly more aware of the advantage of being able to learn in Afrikaans and to also be able to work in English,” says Prof Coetzee-van Rooy.

According to Prof Coetzee-van Rooy there are several useful lessons for languages like Afrikaans in South Africa. “One lesson learnt from the Irish case, is that exaggerated claims of the endangerment of Irish after liberation contributed to its eventual loss. Activists who exaggerate the threats to Irish came from a very traditional sector of the society. Modern Irish people (often the younger generation) could not associate with the traditional and negative views of the activists that exaggerated the case of the threat towards Irish and they distanced themselves from these claims by not using Irish anymore. The social movement contributed to the death of Irish in a short space of time.

The same could happen to the case of maintaining Afrikaans. If claims about the loss of Afrikaans or the threat to Afrikaans in post-1994 South Africa is exaggerated and are voiced by traditional sectors of the Afrikaans-speaking community, it is possible that more liberal, modern or young Afrikaans-speaking people would try to actively distance themselves from Afrikaans by not using the language anymore. Afrikaans activists would do well to study the case of the loss of Irish.”