‘The Burden of Diversity’: The Sociolinguistic Problems of English in South Africa

  •  Berrington Ntombela    


At the emergence of democracy in South Africa the government corrected linguistic imbalances by officialising eleven languages. Prior to that only English and Afrikaans were the recognised official languages. The Black population had rejected the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. However, such rejection did not mean the adoption of indigenous languages as media of instruction; instead English was supposedly adopted as a unifying language among linguistically diverse Africans. Such implicit adoption of the English language has created a stalemate situation in the development of African languages to the level of English and Afrikaans. Although there is a widespread desire to promote indigenous languages to the level of being media of instruction, the desire is peripheral and does not carry the urgency that characterised the deposition of Afrikaans in the 1976 uprisings. On the other hand this paper argues that the hegemony of English language as a colonial instrument carries ambivalence in the minds of Black South Africans. Through ethnographic thick description of two learners, this hegemony is illustrated by the ‘kind’ of English provided to most Black South African learners who do not have financial resources to access the English offered in former Model C schools. The paper concludes that Black South Africans do not only need urgency in the promotion and development of indigenous languages, but further need to problematize, in addition to the implicit adoption of English language, the quality of the language they have opted. The paper therefore suggests that this is possible through a decolonised mindset.

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