Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Children following a maths lesson taught in English when their home languages may be Sesotho or Xitsonga are at a major disadvantage.

Their fuzz of noncomprehension would be relieved if they had a dictionary to look up the English words in their mother tongue.

Unfortunately, this is not an option, because until recently, nobody had produced dictionaries in all of SA’s official indigenous languages.

"It’s inconceivable in a country where the majority of learners study in a language that’s not their mother tongue that they are not given dictionaries," says Terence Ball, the adviser on language policy implementation for the South African National Lexicography Units (Sanlu).

Power of words:  The South African National Lexicography Units, which is producing indigenous language dictionaries, says the use of dictionaries from an early age improves a child’s cognitive and learning skills, spelling, vocabulary and basic reference skills. Picture: SUPPLIED
Power of words: The South African National Lexicography Units, which is producing indigenous language dictionaries, says the use of dictionaries from an early age improves a child’s cognitive and learning skills, spelling, vocabulary and basic reference skills. Picture: SUPPLIED

"We all know there’s an emphasis on teaching maths and science in schools, but the majority of learners are studying in a language that’s not their mother tongue and if they don’t understand English, they’re not going to succeed in those subjects," he says.

"Dictionaries are essential in terms of their understanding of English, developing their vocabulary and spelling skills and giving them tools to understand the subject’s content."

Sanlu is tackling that by producing dictionaries in each of the indigenous languages, both monolingual and in bilingual formats that translate indigenous and English words.

But it’s a slow job getting its dictionaries into the schools, so Sanlu has launched a national awareness campaign to speed up the process.

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"It’s still very rare to find them in schools, but we are trying to persuade the Department of Basic Education and Department of Higher Education and Training to put them in their institutions and to work with us to develop picture dictionaries for younger children at the foundation stage," Ball says.

Dictionaries will be even more crucial under the government’s drive to promote the teaching of — and in — African languages. At the moment, children in grades R to 3 are taught in their home language and learn English as a subject. At Grade 4, the medium of instruction switches to English. Afrikaans and English mother tongue speakers will also be required to learn an African language, making dictionaries essential for kids on both sides of the language spectrum.

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Sanlu has now published a catalogue, listing the dictionaries it has produced in its efforts to capture, protect and advance the use of all indigenous languages. The comprehensive collection includes monolingual dictionaries for isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Tshivenda, Siswati, Setswana, Xitsonga, Sesotho and Sesotho sa Leboa; bilingual dictionaries translating those into English; trilingual versions converting isiXhosa or isiNdebele into Afrikaans and English; and dictionaries explaining English maths and science terms in Setswana and isiXhosa.

Sanlu is an umbrella body for the nine indigenous language national lexicography units created to fulfil the Constitution’s demand that no language is disadvantaged over any other on the basis of having fewer speakers. The Constitution recognises cultural diversity as a valuable national asset and calls for the promotion of multilingualism and respect for all languages used in the country.

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Sanlu is asking academics, lecturers, principals and teachers to support its work and make sure its dictionaries are available in schools, colleges, government offices and libraries. The use of dictionaries from an early age improves a child’s cognitive and learning skills, spelling, vocabulary and basic reference skills, it says.

Sanlu also wants to work with education and arts and culture experts in each province to discuss the specialist terminology or slang to include in future editions and to identify new projects to strengthen the teaching of different languages to create a more multilingual society.

The need for positive action to protect our languages is demonstrated by the San people, with only three surviving San languages still spoken in SA and the number of speakers diminishing rapidly. The San Council of SA and the South African San Institute are working with Sanlu to develop a dictionary that will be published in 2018.

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Sanlu says without such intervention, other languages could also face extinction.

"The San languages provide a warning of what might happen to some of our official indigenous languages unless urgent steps are put in place to support and extend this project," says Ball.

The lexicography units point out that a home language provides the means to express oneself and be understood, but also carries the culture and practices of the society that speaks it.

So, learning a second language means learning something about the culture of its speakers.

Yet South Africans are struggling to learn their own language, let alone a second, because they don’t have the building blocks of dictionaries.

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While bilingual dictionaries help learners to navigate between their home language and the language of instruction, a monolingual dictionary helps to improve their vocabulary in their home language, improve the status of that language and present tangible proof that the language matters.

The global norm now is for individuals and societies to be multilingual, Sanlu says, especially in Africa. That requires the learning of more than one language to become the general practice and for being multilingual to be a defining characteristic of South Africans.

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That goal should become more attainable with the Department of Basic Education’s new language-in-education policy, which requires every schoolchild to learn a second and preferably a third African language.

The main aims are to promote full participation in society and the economy through equal access to education by its multilingualism and to promote all the official languages to help build a nonracial nation with better communication across the barriers of colour, language and region.

Most of the nine national lexicography units that are producing these dictionaries are based at universities in the province where the indigenous language has its stronghold.

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