16 May 2011

Zambia: Language, a Vital Tool for Communication

Language is a cross-cutting tool that can impact greatly on socio-economic development of the region.

It remains the single most important tool for the dissemination of information which is critical to the development of any society.

University of Zambia (UNZA) senior lecturer for language and linguistics Nkolola Wakumelo, defines language as any form of communication used by people to send messages or get messages across to each other.

Unfortunately, most organisations or sectors of the economy operate without any deliberate written policy document that outlines the appropriate or preferred language use.

It is for this reason that scholars and academicians in the department of language and linguistics at UNZA are calling for a national language policy and a language board or commission who should regulate the use of language at national level.

"There is need for a national language policy document that will act as a guide on the use of language in the Zambian society.

For example countries like South Africa have a language policy enshrined in its constitution," Dr Wakumelo clarifies.

She explains that in Tanzania, there is a specific language commission that is charged with the responsibility of updating the local language dictionary, to ensure a standardised system is in use in the various sectors of the economy.

"Just to emphasise the importance of having a national language policy and commission or board, imagine how it would make easier the job of court interpreters who find it hard to interpret court jargons such as nolle prosequi into local vernacular languages," she says.

A national body that will be charged with the responsibility of regulating language use could consist of academicians, educationalists, scientists, the media and officials form the department of culture under the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services.

Dr Wakumelo also emphasises the need for the Government to consider sponsoring a national language survey with the view of establishing the various language needs in the country.

"We tried to put across the suggestion of integrating some questionnaires on language during the 2010 census exercise, but we didnot receive a favourable response from the Central Statistical Office(CSO).

The process was so bureaucratic that the suggestion fell out,"she regrets.

Another important step in the formulation of a national language policy is the need to document local languages. It is sad to note the rapid rate at which some vernacular languages used by the minority of the Zambian population are threatened with extinction.

There are languages such as Nyengo, Totela, Bwile, Chokwe, Luchazi,Mashi, Mbowa, Mbukushu, Nkoya, Simaa, Subiya and many others, which have no record of documented grammar.

The Ngoni language in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique also, risks becoming extinct, due to lack ofdocumented preservation of the language.

At independence in 1964, the Zambian Government adopted English as the official language for use in education, the media, legislature and in all its administration work.

The adoption of English as the national official language is enshrined in Article (5) of the current Zambian Constitution. English was seen as a neutral language that would be acceptable to all the divergent linguistic and ethnic groups in the country as a means to foster national unity.

However, in addition to English as the official language, the Government also recognises seven official local languages namely Bemba, Chinyanja, Kaonde, Lunda, Luvale, Tonga and Lozi, as regional languages to be taught alongside English in the Zambian school curriculum.

One of the major factors that contributed to the Zambian Government adopting English as an official language was the fear of ethno-linguistic rivalry in an event that one local language was selected over another.

However, the lack of development and use of local languages cannot been tirely blamed on the Government alone.

One of the major contributors to the stagnation of local languages is the attitude of the people themselves, especially the elite, most of whom have shown lack of confidence and interest in local languages. In today's Zambian society, it is uncommon to find children born during the post-independence era failing to speak their mother tongue.

To compound this further, local Zambian languages are not considered as efficient instruments of education, technology or economic advancement.

Most efforts to write in Zambian languages have been through private institutions and organisations working with private individuals.

In addition some efforts have been made by the Curriculum Development Centre of the Ministry of Education in collaboration with private organisations and individuals to write materials in other languages for possible use in the education system.

For policies promoting the use of Zambian languages to succeed, the Government needs to invest heavily in the education sector.

The state has to ensure that it trains enough personnel which should be well remunerated while teaching materials should be produced.

The Linguistic Association of SADC Universities (LASU), an initiative of the Zambian, Malawian and Mozambican Governments, was formed in1994 as a result of the recognition that while SADC countries were flourishing with civil society organisations (CSOs), and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) actively engaged in advocating socio-economic rights, there were no known organisations advocating for the promotion of language.

LASU aims at fostering, promoting, strengthening and maintaining high standards of linguistic education and research through appropriate and effective language use.

One of the main objectives of the association is to encourage and assist governments in the SADC region and other relevant bodies to formulate sound language policies for their respective countries and for the region.

This objective is particularly important because language remains the most important tool for communication as well as dissemination of information and activating the citizenry in regions to participate fully in developmental initiatives.

During the 11th LASU bi-annual conference held in Lusaka, Education Minister Dora Siliya reiterated the Zambian Government's commitment to the promotion, protection and preservation of language.

The conference which was held under the theme 'Linguistic Theory and Language Documentation: Innovations, Successes and Challenges' was described by Ms Siliya as being timely as it drew the participation of academicians and scholars from the region.

Ms Siliya said that depending on other ideological orientation, language policies formulated and pursued by governments can either beempowering or disempowering to the citizenry.

Such policies effectively dis-empowered the majority of citizens from actively participating in the Governance and development activities of their nations thereby holding back the attainment of sustainable socio-economic development.

However, it is timely, in fact long overdue, because most local languages have remained undocumented and, therefore, not available as avenues for either information dissemination or teaching and learning.

The theme is timeless because once the progress of documentation commences, it is dynamic.

There is need to continue bringing on board new vocabulary items and expressions.

"The challenge which I would like to present to this conference is inform of a question 'how can this conference facilitate the formulation and implementation, in SADC countries, of language policies which will enhance the documentation of community languages so that they can be used as instruments of mass communication, mass education, science and socio-economic development?" Ms Siliya questions.

The generally held belief is that African languages cannot be used as instruments for scientific and socio-economic development is wrong.

But there are numerous examples of world economies that have developed without necessarily promoting the use of English, but rather through the use of their indigenous languages.

Examples of these are economic giants such as China, and Japan, whose rates of development are immeasurable.

It is imperative that Third World countries emulate these countries by realising that even local languages can be used as a tool to foster the much needed development.

"As Africans, we need to learn from major world economies like Japan and China that have developed in the media of their own languages," Ms Siliya stresses.

However, with the realisation by the Government on the importance that language preservation plays in the development of the country, and political will, not all hope is lost from turning the situation around to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to preserve, promote, protect and maintain local languages in Zambia.

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