Top-down language policy vis-à-vis grass roots demands – Contemporary South Africa’s search for a middle ground as a litmus test

In 2015 and 2016 South African Universities experienced students’ protests of striking proportions which centred around the nationwide “#fees must fall” movement. Almost from the beginning the core demand of the often violent protests was supplemented with urgent calls for decolonisation (#Rhodes must fall) which culminated in the demand that science should be reconceptualised from an African perspective (#science must fall). These protests bear witness to a growing sense of exclusion from society – foremost from education and economic security – among the majority of the population in particular among the ‘born frees’, i.e. the young South Africans born after the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994.

This sense of exclusion is tightly linked to the ‘language issue’. While South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions worldwide which not only provides for 11 official languages but which also recognises human language rights more widely, corresponding policy implementation has been dragging as the new democracy continues to be formed.

“The exclusion is felt because indigenous languages are low down the language hierarchy; books by local and African writers are difficult to access in public libraries that do not stock them; and the ability to read for pleasure is affected by socioeconomic factors.” (The Sunday Times on the “Time of the Writer 2016” – festival theme: Decolonising the Book)

A society wherein the majority of the populace feels excluded is a society in trouble. The current talk highlights that while there is a persistent desire and need for English proficiency as a global language as well as a language of national social coherence, language policies in South Africa and elsewhere need to take the role of the L1 during socialisation and identity formation very seriously. We cannot afford to raise generations of children who feel alienated from the education system throughout their academic career. Against this background I discuss four ongoing case studies which attempt to promote contrastive teaching pedagogies at different levels of the educational system, which aim to emancipate contemporary ‘non-canonical’ discourse structures which originate both in oral African traditions as well as in urban multi-ethnolects and poly-languaging practices. My research challenges the primacy of standardised norms in both English and the L1 of the students.

While I acknowledge the need for globally accepted standardised norms, which provide normativity and predictability, societies and speakers worldwide become increasingly multi-dialectal and multi-registered not only through mobility and displacement but also through multi-facetted language contact in digital media. Hence we may need to explore and accept linguistic (super-) diversity (see e.g. Deumert 2014). I argue, that both linguistic theory as well as applications thereof – e.g. in language teaching and scientific knowledge dissemination – cannot afford to remain within the comfort-zone of ‘canonical’ patterns and structures.

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