Linguistic identity in the Namibian context
With communication being one of the ultimate facets of defining and structuring identities, the relationship between language and identity is a fundamental one.
Linguistic identity is thus construed as the affiliation, which individuals have with a specific language, that is, the correlation between the people in a given area – in this instance Namibia – and language. Linguistic identity plays an important part in the development of ethnic identity.
Hence, it creates a sense of belonging to a community.
Language is an instrument through which one tries to understand and interpret one’s environment. Hence, in a multicultural and multilingual country, like Namibia, one discerns that there are various languages through which individuals identify themselves, therefore creating multiple linguistic identities and consequently leading to the need to negotiate a language guiding principle.
Namibia has great linguistic diversity, considering its population of just over two million.
The Namibian population is categorised in both their daily speech and in scholarly literature into roughly nine defined ethnic groups.
Due to the difficulty in distinguishing languages from dialects, the estimated total number of languages in Namibia ranges between 10 and 30. These languages can be further divided into roughly three language families: the Bantu languages, the Khoisan languages and the Indo-European languages.
Given the above profile, it is clear that Namibia is faced with a mammoth responsibility to ensure that all citizens are furnished linguistically.
Although a multilingual nation, English is the only official language in Namibia. Namibia adopted English as the official language after independence in 1990.
It is the language used in government institutions and for official business. Whereas in many other countries the official language is that of the country’s former coloniser, Namibia’s case is unique.
English was chosen over Afrikaans and German, as both the latter languages were part of Namibia’s colonial and apartheid history and the fear of favouritism regarding any of the indigenous languages, which might lead to tribalism.
English being the language of wider communication in the world, it is no surprise that it was chosen to be the official language in Namibia.
The status quo is not only unique to Namibia. There is a strong lenience towards English in Africa as the sole language of instruction due to the privileges attached to it and prestige accorded to it, in most cases, at the expense of local languages.
It is widely known that a child learns better in his/her mother tongue and mother tongue is as natural to him/her as mother’s milk. In order to promote the use of mother tongue instruction, Namibia identified the need to have a language policy for schools in order for mother tongues to be used together with English, therefore promoting indigenous languages.
The policy stipulates that learners are to be taught in their mother tongue from Grade 1 to 3. From Grade 4 onwards, the medium of instruction is English with their mother tongue taught as a subject. As promising as the policy document sounds, it is faced with challenges.
For example, the policy does not ensure that all children are taught in their mother tongue, as it is the language of the majority speakers in the community which is taught, as opposed to the minority, mainly due to lack of indigenous language teachers.
Another challenge is the lack of printed material in all indigenous languages, which may be attributed to financial constraints.
There is also a challenge – especially in urban areas – where learners may be from different linguistic backgrounds and the system is left with no choice but to use English as the medium of instruction from Grade 1, so as to cater for all learners.
Language expresses identity; languages are repositories of history and contribute to the sum total of human knowledge. According to research, in a bi- or multi-lingual situation, learners who are strong in their home language are likely to achieve better academically, because the individual is able to form concepts in their mind in their mother tongue before conceptualising them in a second language.
This clearly shows how important the foundation of a child in her or his home language is. Thus, there is a need to give much support to the strengthening of the implementation of language polices that allow learners to learn in their mother tongues. We should also not leave it solely up to the government to reinforce the use of mother tongue.
Indigenous languages will not only be promoted by merely stipulating them in policies; we need to get involved as individuals. It begins with demonstrating to the young ones that there is absolutely nothing to be shy about in speaking one’s mother tongue.
Practices, such as engaging in conversations in mother tongue when the speakers conversing speak the same indigenous language, will also go a long way in bringing prestige back to indigenous languages.
In conclusion, Namibia has proven to be a highly multilingual country with vast linguistic identities. The English language saves the day as the official language. English incorporates all Namibia as a unified entity by serving the purpose of nationalism in diminishing the feelings of perceived intra-national linguistic domination by majority groups.
It is recommended that the key to resolving the multilingual-instigated problems is to consider the re-visiting of the national language policies to be more inclusive in the quest to promote indigenous languages in Namibian society and for the citizens themselves to be more enthusiastic about their mother tongue.
Let us create a culture where being fluent in one’s mother tongue is the new swagger.
* Leena Iitula is a Master of Arts student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies at the University of Namibia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org