South Africa’s Language Riddle

sa kids for webWith the fall of apartheid South Africa being just over 20 years ago, democratic South Africa continues to face challenges to encourage the growth of its African languages. South Africa has 11 officially recognized languages, first languages to about 98% of South Africans, but of those languages only two rule supreme in the country’s academia: English and Afrikaans.

Afrikaans is the country’s third most spoken language and its continued influence is a particularly sensitive topic, as many South Africans still associate it as the language of oppression. Last month, Reuters Africa posted an article about South African student protests against Stellenbosch University’s preference to Afrikaans over English as the language of instruction. Student activists see the university’s curriculum as a perpetuation of past inequalities and a confirmation of the institution’s racist inclinations.

The unfortunate reality is that this fight is between two languages with foreign roots and drenched in a history of colonial exploitation and racism. Although Zulu is the first language to the majority of South Africans (11.58 million people), it remains overshadowed by English and Afrikaans a language of instruction, the same can be said of Xhosa.

As of last year though, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) implemented a new curriculum to change this. All students are now required to take Zulu along side English courses in order to promote the presence of African languages in universities. Although the initiative has been praised by many, some worry that the program may be interpreted as prioritizing Zulu and Zulu identity over others. The consensus among students also seems to be that the curriculum does not allow them to reach full competency in Zulu and many are growing frustrated by the university’s mandatory approach.

In a globalized world, there are clear advantages for South Africans to learn English and to a certain extent Afrikaans. Language learning is a key tool to foster intercultural dialogue, increased social mobility, among many other advances. There should; however, be comparable pressures for indigenous African languages to not be left behind. Perhaps increasing the presence of African languages in schools sooner is a promising start.

Starting next year, 3,000 South African schools will require students to gain proficiency in three languages in the hopes of diversifying language instruction from the predominantly English and Afrikaans focus. These initiatives have the potential to foster mutual understanding and to spark interest in previously marginalized languages. So far, the pilot project to teach three languages has had positive responses from both the students and parents.

Expanding the presence of the African languages into South African schools is long overdue. South Africa’s challenge is exasperated by its linguistic diversity and the struggle to balance ethnic sensitivities. The hope is that the excitement over the government’s new initiatives does not wane and that South African’s see the value in teaching and learning their languages. Let’s hope that these initiatives are the seeds of change inspire a new generation of truly multi-lingual South Africans.


Govender, P., (2015, May 17). Big Boost for learning african languages in schools. Retrieved from

Roelf, W., (2015, September 5). South African students rebel against language that defined apartheid. Retrieved from

Rudwick, S. (2015). Forcing South African students to learn African languages won’t do them any good. Retrieved from

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