A Detailed Account of the Use and Status of Languages in South Africa

3121 words (12 pages) Essay in Languages

08/02/20 Languages Reference this

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Research into South Africa’s language history has been covered rather extensively in the past twenty years. Papers on the countries implementation of policies such as (Ngcobo, 2007) and (Allwood & Hendrikse, 2003) have shed light on the governments plans to move away from past language dominance/oppression and towards equality. Rajend Mesthrie’s 2002 Language in South Africa has provided an excellent, widely covered analysis of the overall language situation in South Africa, focusing largely on the individual languages (phonetically and in terms of domain) and also language planning/education. Calling on a vast array of “leading researchers”, Mesthrie has compiled a thorough analysis of many of South Africa’s less-understood languages within small communities. Ng and Wigglesworth’s 2007 Bilingualism: An Advanced Resource Book comments on the overall field of bilingualism, going into significant detail regarding the notion of diglossia and its various extensions, e.g. Fishman, 1972. This essay has also taken advantage of recent statistics on South Africa’s numerous languages to comment on changes made to the overall status of language and culture. Due to the rather recent changes in South African politics, much of the literature before the mid 1990’s can be said to have a very different slant on South African languages.  Languages besides English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and isiXhosa were largely marginalized in times of apartheid. Thus much of the literature used within this essay has been compiled in recent times, giving a new perspective on the language situation in South Africa in its current state.

A brief overview/Introduction

The Republic of South Africa is diverse in every sense, no more so than in terms of languages. However not too long ago, language policies had a large affect on the countries diversity. English and Afrikaans were, for a significant period of time, the only two official languages and “as a result of such policies, all other African languages in this country were marginalized.” (Ngcobo, 2007). Changes have since been made to address this. South Africa is now home to eleven official languages, these being English, Afrikaans, isiNdbele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga (“South Africa – World Travel Guide”, 2018). Due to this being a rather high number it’s no surprise that in a census taken in 2011, recording “population and household characteristics”, as little as 1.6% of the population regarded their first language as anything other than the eleven previously mentioned (Census 2011: Census in brief, 2012).

In terms of highest spoken languages, when looking at languages spoken at home, isiZulu is spoken by roughly 25% of the population, with isiXhosa spoken by c.16%, Afrikaans by c.12% and English by c.8% (“Africa :: South Africa — The World Factbook – Central Intelligence Agency”, 2017).

Although this would give the impression of languages such as isiZulu and isiXhosa being the most popular/important languages, the actually practicality and domains in which languages are spoken shows different results.

Domains of language use


Implemented in 1997, the Language in Education Policy (LiEP) demonstrated a commitment from the South African government to promote multilingualism across schools:

“Diversity is a valuable asset, which the state is required to respect, the aim of these norms and standards is the promotion, fulfillment and development of the state’s overarching language goals in school education in compliance with the Constitution” (Language in Education Policy, 1997, page 2)

Students were encouraged to take any of the official eleven languages when applying to a school, providing that school had the means to teach such languages. The policy dictated that from grade three, pupils chose one language for “learning and teaching”, and at the very least one other language to be taught as an extra subject. For example a student could choose isiZulu for learning and teaching purposes, and then to learn Afrikaans as an extra subject. Although the idea of languages on an equal playing field is seen here, the reality of this policy is not definite. Although designed to promote the perhaps less commonly spoken languages, the policy has resulted in many students in fact learning English as the dominant language for learning and teaching, often relegating or even swapping their mother-tongue (L1 language) for another more widely spoken language (e.g. Afrikaans). More drastically, many children result to taking on English for learning and teaching, whilst retaining English as an extra language subject. Therefore “without factors which promote bilingual literacy … many South African learners struggle to achieve bilingual literacy” (Manyike, 2013). Reasons for this popular choice in English are rather simple. Due to its high degree of use and reliance, English is of course world-renowned and often compulsory in the majority of countries. South African homes where English is perhaps never spoken may feel their children are having the best chance of future success with a strong knowledge of English. Crystal (1997) states that “about a quarter of the world’s population is already fluent or competent in English, and this figure is steadily growing”. It can be therefore said that although students are encouraged to strengthen their mother-tongue language at school, the popularity of taking on more common languages such as English has slightly hindered the government’s strive for a multilingual nation.


In terms of the workplace, English is mostly spoken in any relatively successful business (“Work culture & etiquette in South Africa | Language Recruiters”, 2018), although it could be assumed speakers may communicate to each other in other languages on occasion. The official language spoken within the government is English, and has been for a significant period of time. Since the ANC (African National Congress) took power, the linguistic preference of the government has been English (Sonntag, 2003).


In terms of diglossia, it would be difficult to pair South Africa with this standard definition:

“At least everyone in the community speaks the same variety as a home language. That is, the L variety is everyone’s L1. The high variety is always a variety that is learned through special study … so sufficient schooling is the gateway to potential power.” (Ng and Wigglesworth, 2007)

Due to the significant number of official languages, and the on-going government encouragement to promote multilingualism, it’s rare that a language is only available in informal circumstances. I.e. languages often associated with the high variety in other countries (e.g. English) are available to all students in South African schools. A limitation would perhaps be the availability of education, since many South Africans live a rather poor lifestyle, lacking opportunities for full-time education. In this situation, the single competence in a local (official or not) language would result in many being monolingual. In this scenario, the mother tongue could be seen as the L variety, with languages such as English or Afrikaans being the H variety since they are used in more formal, commercial and business situations (monolingual diglossia). Moreover in communities where only one language is spoken, without opportunities to learn another, Fishman’s (1972) extended variety of diglossia could occur:

“Everyone in the community speaks his or her L1, of course, and it is acquired at home … for some people the L1 is also the H variety, but for others, their L1 is only an L variety. Thus, by the accident of family, some people have more access to participating in status-raising interactions.” (Ng and Wigglesworth, 2007)

A community with no access to proper education could, for example, speak isiXhosa. This would appear as the H and L variety. Since opportunity for full other language exposure/comprehension is small, the original L1 is also deemed a high variety as well as low, and used in formal and official purposes within that community.

On the whole, South Africa can be classed as a mostly multilingual society. All languages have been given equal status. However the case with English does raise arguments. “In African nations, colonial languages such as French, Portuguese and English are widely perceived to be associated with success” (Ng and Wigglesworth, 2007). It must be said decisions to state English as the language of Government and overwhelming increase in choosing English at school over L1 languages does give the impression that some, “official” languages, in South Africa are not as equal and overlapping (in terms of function) as others.


Due to South Africa’s vast array of languages, code-switching regularly occurs in many forms, defined as “switching languages or linguistic varieties within the same conversation” (Mesthrie, 2002). Mesthrie also states how “all eleven official languages of South Africa ay be involved in the practise of CS in different places”, demonstrating the flexibility of South Africa’s languages in certain situations, but also the volume of bilingual/multilingual speakers. An example of code-switching can be seen with English and Afrikaans speakers.

(From McCormick, cited in Mesthrie, 2002):

A child talking to herself…

Ek het die colour, nou where’s it?        (‘I have this colour, now where’s it?’)

The above example can be defined as intrasential code-switching (i.e. switching languages within the same sentence). Moreover this combination of English and Afrikaans is a regular occurrence in the large city of Cape Town. Described as both a conscious and unconscious effort at different times, a study on Cape Town’s district six (Mesthrie, 2002) showed that situational code-switching (governed by domain/function) between English and Afrikaans was prominent. Studies found that the use of pure English/Afrikaans in most situations was often unacceptable and viewed with negativity. However in situations of formality, e.g. a meeting, English was often deemed appropriate. Although a minor example, this relationship between two prominent languages in Cape Town demonstrates method to the often-perceived madness and how CS is not a result of random mixing.

Language ideologies

Language ideology refers to “sustaining or subverting power relations within society through language” (Sebba, 2018). In terms of policy ideologies, South Africa largely conforms to the idea of linguistic pluralism:

“Coexistence of different language groups and their rights to maintain and cultivate their languages on an equitable basis” (Cobarrubias, 1983)

Although some language such as English and Afrikaans may receive more public attention, South Africa still recognizes other languages being spoken within the country and that minority languages should be promoted and respected. It could be argued that linguistic standardism is also present within South Africa. Since English is so heavily relied upon, for oversees success and within the government, the idea of standardism can be seen. I.e. a country can only truly function with one “head” language. South Africa still embraces its diverse range of languages, something standardism also shares.

Language policy and planning

Linked to education and the Language in Education Policy (mentioned previously), in 1995 the ANC released a document entitled A policy Framework for Education and Training. This document proved to be a backbone for many polices soon to be introduced in later years, including the LiEP. The document listed four lessons, “identified as being of the utmost importance” (Mesthrie, 2002).  Paraphrased from the African National Congress, 1995, the lessons were as follows: Firstly, language changes made were to have an affect on all areas of the nation. Secondly, the decision to learn a language was solely up to the learner, never forced. Thirdly, no person should “fear the education system” and potential suppression of their mother tongue. And finally, language choice and restrictions were not to prevent students from educational opportunities. This crucial document ensured there was clarity in what the South African Government intended to do regarding changes to language policy inn education and led nicely onto the 1997 Language in Education Policy.

Developed and put forward by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) in 2003, the National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) represented a language policy that was “consistent with political developments in the country, especially regarding the notions of democracy, equality and rights as stated in the South African Constitution” (Ngcobo, 2007). The policy began a new wave of multilingualism, a far cry from previous times (e.g. apartheid) and well explained in the government’s NLPF document:

“Colonial and apartheid language policies, together with political and socio-economic policies, therefore gave rise to a hierarchy of languages, the inequality of which that reflected the structures of racial and class inequality that characterised South African society.” (National Language Policy Framework, 2003)

South Africa’s attempts to distinguish language bias have resulted in other documents over the years, such as the Language in Education Policy (touched on earlier), and The Implementation Plan document. The latter was aimed at “implementation of the NLPF” (Ngcobo, 2007), providing “details regarding the structures and mechanisms required to operationalise the (2003) Language Policy” (Implementation Plan: National Language Policy Framework, 2003). What is clear is how South Africa has gradually moved away from its rather dark past, both in terms of language, and culture. Strong efforts have been made to re-adjust the scales and give all languages equal rights.

In terms of the future of South Africa, confidence can be placed in predicting further efforts to generate language equality. However it has been argued that although South Africa is striving for such equality, the on-going dominance of English will always hinder other languages’ progression (Ngcobo, 2007).

“The need for international communication standards and stable geo-political relations seem to entail inevitable monolingualism at the expense of linguistic diversity.” (Allwood & Hendrikse, 2003)

Although Allwood & Hendrikse associate language dominance (especially English) with eventual monolingualism, accompanied by how English is increasing in popularity in education, it would take a drastic change in South Africa’s language policy and planning to result in mass monolingualism. Too many changes have been made to preserve South African languages. Moreover it must be said that although English is increasing in stature, this cannot be labelled as an absolute negative. As linguistic standardism states, perhaps a nation with numerous languages is need of a major/well-cemented language, to avoid possible conflictions in language status. This would of course only hold true as long as other languages e.g. Setswana and Sepedi are allowed their own “high-valued functional space in the linguistic market place” (Ngcobo, 2007).


It can be said that in comparison to many other countries, South Africa has managed its vast array of languages in a commendable way. New policies have already been compiled and implemented to ensure possible monolingualism or elite diglossia is unlikely to develop. Changes made since the times of apartheid to the education system have allowed for a greater number of L1 speakers of less popular languages to retain their identity, whilst still develop an understanding of other, perhaps more society-relevant languages that increase career prospects. English has slowly become a dominant aspect of South African culture, and can be seen as a positive and negative. What is clear though is that it is unlikely South Africa falls into a state of language oppression. Language is such an important aspect of people’s culture and identity, cementing the countries’ nickname as the rainbow nation.


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