Launch of Multilingualism Campaign

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20 Feb 2010

Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, H.E. Mr Paul Mashatile
Honourable Ministers of the Republic of South Africa
Chairperson of the ANC Youth League, Mr Julius Malema
Honourable Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee of Arts and Culture
The CEO of Freedom Park, Dr Wally Serote
Ms South Africa: Ms Nicole Flint
Members and Representatives of Government and States of the Netherlands, Belgian Flanders and Surinam: Mr Rudy and Mrs. Francine van Diermen
Distinguished Observers from our political structures and speech communities
Professors and members of academia present
Honourable Colleagues from our Correctional Service
Partners, Patrons and members of the private sector and civil society present
Principals, Teachers and Learners
Ladies and Gentlemen
All Protocol observed

Molweni, Dumelang, Sanibona, Good Morning, Goeie Môre, Lotshane, Thobela, ndeMacherone, Avuxeni, Nine bekuNene!

First of all, let me say how pleased I am to be here at the Freedom Park with you. I wish to thank the organizers of this event, for giving me an opportunity to explain the National Language Policy of multilingualism to you. I know that in our country, the words “language” and “multilingualism” arouse great interest. That is a very good thing because some people think that it would be easier to have a lingua franca, that is to agree to a single language that we will all use, such as English. Others even think that other languages perceived to be of minor importance such as our African languages have no place in today’s world. I believe exactly the opposite. Let me tell you why:

• as adopted and amended in 1996, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa has respected linguistic diversity from the start;
• seven (7) years later in 2003, we moved up a gear and adopted the National Language Policy Framework and its Implementation Plan;
• another (7) seven years later in 2010, we are submitting to Cabinet and Parliament the Language Practitioners’ Council Bill in August and November respectively. The aim of the Language Practitioner’s Council will be to raise the status of the language profession and safeguard the quality of products. It will also protect members of the public who make use of language services;
• in the same 2010, we are launching multilingualism campaigns to be conducted nation-wide, not just by DAC, but by all of us wherever we are stationed.

Clearly therefore, for us, the future is not one of mono-lingualism but of multilingualism. I will start with a truth that must be repeated again and again: the South African government of today defends cultural and linguistic diversity because our languages are a fundamental element of this diversity and therefore fundamental for South Africans wanting to work, live and grow together. They go to the very heart of the unity in diversity expressed by the motto in our National Coat of Arms which is written in the Khoisan language of the Xam people, literally meaning ‘diverse people unite’. I am convinced that accepting differences strengthens unity and cohesion.

It has sometimes mistakenly been believed that diversity is an obstacle to the development of any country. Today we see that the opposite is true. It is actually the bond of our nation. Without respect for diversity, unity is impossible. The different races cannot join together in a common project in which they do not acknowledge each other.

The government’s commitment to multilingualism is longstanding. Let us remember that it was the Cabinet in 2003 who endorsed a National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) and an Implementation Plan being conscious of the challenges involved in the efficient management of linguistic diversity. This was done with a view to establishing the principle of linguistic equality. In light of this, establishing language structures to carry out language development work in the public sector and conducting language awareness campaigns are imperatives to be implemented with urgency. However, while my department reserves the sole mandate to facilitate and coordinate the establishment of the required infrastructure nationally, successful implementation of multilingualism will depend largely on collaboration with all national, provincial and local structures, as well as PanSALB and civil society.

The principle of linguistic equality is a principle of democracy and in recognition of this, our goal is to develop our official languages, respect and promote differences. However, this multilingualism also serves our interests. South Africa must be quick to understand that its languages are assets in cultural, social and also economic terms. Therefore over the years, DAC has taken initiatives to promote languages and linguistic diversity or multilingualism. Of course, DAC must take action within the limits of its competences. In this field, our partners, the Public Sector, nationally, provincially and locally, PanSALB, the Private Sector as well as the civil community, must play their role too. In this field, all our partners are the decision makers. As DAC, we can only guide, advise, suggest and encourage.

I am speaking from experience, the DAC is sometimes asked to intervene in fields in which they have no competence. Despite the expectations of some, my department is not able to require that a specific language such as Swahili, Yoruba or French be learned, or to set the number of hours devoted to language teaching, or reform the education system; our limits are set by the National Language Policy Framework and its Implementation Plan, with which you are familiar, I hope. However, we can influence a number of developments. We can bring Ministers, MECs, or senior officials together around a table, and we can also support interesting projects such as the promotion of South African Sign, Khoe and San, languages in respect of the Constitution.

Language is an important element of South Africa’s social cohesion project. The integration of African languages into the political, economic and social discourse of African states is at its core an issue of empowerment. We have the power of persuasion. In this sense, we have a very strong influence in the medium and long term. It is the reason we have invited you to this groundbreaking event today, launching language awareness campaigns to be conducted by yourselves in the future as I have already indicated. These campaigns are necessary in order to arouse public interest in language matters.

The approval of a multilingual policy by Cabinet in 2003 sent out a strong message. As I said in the beginning, it was a message in favour of respect for diversity and appreciation of differences. Over the last few years, this portfolio has been a highly sensitive national issue. There are many instances in recent months of linguistic issues which have become major dialogue points. I could refer to the most recent, the case of Free State University and the policy suggested by Professor Jansen as an intervention to ameliorate racial tensions detected there. His suggestion was that non-Afrikaans students learn Afrikaans and Afrikaans students, learn Sesotho. I could talk about institutional multilingualism, in other words the in-house language regime of historically white universities, English and Afrikaans. Another sensitive issue! We are yet to witness serious public discourse about multilingualism in higher education. I believe Free State University already conducts some classes in more than one language through interpreting. That is an interesting model.

During my time in office, I will support the measures in place to promote multilingualism. When I say multilingualism, I mean two things essentially: respect for linguistic diversity and language learning. With this launch, DAC is leading the way in conducting language awareness campaigns. This is necessary in order to frame government’s expectations with respect to the establishment of required infrastructure, particularly language units in government departments, creating jobs for language practitioners; the language planners, lexicographers (dictionary makers), terminographers (creators of technical terminologies), translators, editors, interpreters, document designers and human language technologists.

Languages are one of the key features of cultural identity. The motto on our Coat of Arms, "Diverse People Unite” is a reflection of the multilingualism which lies at the heart of the national policy on language. The government of South Africa considers its many languages as an asset, rather than a burden. While committed to political and economic integration, the government actively promotes the freedom of its citizens to speak and write their own languages; and of course learn their neighbours’. As you yourselves can see, the theme of the launch is captured in the pithy ice-breaker: “Come Duze Baby: Let’s talk”, which, rendered in its translation equivalents in other official languages, means we really ought to create public spaces in order to dialogue about this multilingualism. I believe it is essential if citizens and enterprises are to benefit fully from the opportunities which this provides. Knowledge of languages has become a key factor of employability and mobility for citizens and a factor of success in business.

Since UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day, it is significant that we chose this day to launch our own language awareness campaigns. February 20 is a prelude to this important day. In a significant way, celebrating both occasions provides an opportunity to recall the objective of the Mother Tongue Day. It is recognizing our national wealth in linguistic diversity and the importance of multilingualism in our heritage and culture including education, science and technology. Yet another aspect of multilingualism has become the focus of attention, that of languages as an instrument to improve mutual understanding, cultural integration and social cohesion as we together build a caring nation. Therefore there are three strands of the multilingual policy we can focus on in our campaigns:

• encouraging language learning and promoting linguistic diversity in our speech communities
• promoting a healthy multilingual economy
• promoting social integration through improved knowledge and acceptance of different languages

Through a bursary scheme, my department offers language-learning opportunities as well training in language practice. Through this bursary, we seek to build linguistic capacity improving language skills for language practitioners and raising awareness of the importance of languages.

We have also commissioned research in human language technologies (HLT) which we fund to develop technology for African languages. In this we work with Meraka Institute at CSIR, the Northwest University at Potchefstroom in collaboration with University of Pretoria. This groundbreaking research is on going but we have achieved milestones of note. So far we have completed spellcheckers for all official African languages. These are installed at government departments and licenses were issued free of charge.

Another is the Lwazi project which we commissioned to provide South Africans with access to government information and services in any of the 11 official languages, using a landline or mobile telephone, also free of charge.

Yet another is the Autshumato project which was developed as a machine-aided translation tool for open source implementation. The term “open source” implies that every application developed in this project is freely available to the general public. The aim of establishing this project as an open source project adheres to the government’s policy and strategy for open source implementation. It specifies that all new software developed for government should be based on open standards. Government encourages and supports the use of open content and open standards.

The main aims of this project are:
• developing a management system for creation of terminology lists, a work that my department and others do on a daily basis
• developing an integrated translation environment within the open source framework to assist word translators for the 11 official languages
• developing machine-aided translation systems
• developing a basic document management system
• making these tools and services public and freely available on given websites
• producing scholarly papers and articles of international quality; and
• creating open source interaction among interested parties to ensure further development in HLT

Needless to say, these projects strongly contribute to a more rapid development and promotion of a culture of multilingualism in South Africa. It also contributes to language pride, and a consciousness of the importance to promote, preserve and develop our languages equitably as skills are being transferred to these indigenous languages.

Another important idea I can leave you to think about is languages and business. Those of you who believe English is the only language of power must think again. It has been said, to quote the Davignon report1 , that “In a Union where diversity is cherished, a lingua franca can never be enough to satisfy every communication need”. Better language skills can be a crucial advantage for our businesses. Recent studies show that businesses without sufficient in-house linguistic expertise lose business opportunities everywhere in the world. New language knowledge is necessary if we are to conquer new markets. Language knowledge is also one of the keys to employment. A candidate with language skills which include sign language will be able to find a job more easily and progress in his or her career.

For this reason, multilingualism must be promoted in all spheres of society, in communication, teaching and learning because it is a means of communication in the media and cinema. Translation and interpreting play a key role in the dissemination of knowledge and information. Today’s new technologies allow more advanced uses of computer-assisted applications such as translation and interpreting. The same can be said for multilingual communication via the Internet.

Lastly, through this launch, I wish to engender a regular, in-depth dialogue or debate. The national policy refers to the establishment of this structured dialogue in terms of the National Language Forum which we hold every quarter with our partners: other government departments and PanSALB with its structures. The forum encourages discourse on issues of policy and implementation between language practitioners and experts under the leadership of DAC.

Of course, we have to be realistic, as I said; the DAC cannot do everything by itself. This is a field in which all parties concerned have decision-making power. All of us together have the last word.

A future challenge is posed by multilingualism in the call to establish language units in government departments. Terminology development, translation and interpreting services must be provided in respect of the Constitution and national language policy framework. These services are the biggest in the world and generate significant costs and require a lot of staff. This is one of the challenges of development. Here again, we hear it said that using a single language would make communication easier. If that were the case, where for example, would be the place of sign language? My reply is that the costs of multilingualism are the price of democracy. It is a choice which importantly places citizens on equal footing. It ensures that no member of society has an advantage over the others when it comes to access to education: knowledge, information, science and technology and opportunities to participate in national negotiations, policy formulation and legislation.

In conclusion, I believe the position of government on multilingualism has strengthened the situation of all official languages which could have been threatened by historical experiences in South Africa. Instead, we have confirmed their legitimacy and shown that they are firmly anchored in a multilingual South Africa.

Thank you.


1Etienne Davignon (1970) generated the policy for the European Economic Community also known as the Common Market in the English speaking world, an organization created to bring about economic integration in Europe. (Wikipedia. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from