Kiswahili will, from 2020, become the latest language to be taught in South Africa's classrooms. This East African lingua franca, which is also an official language of the African Union, will be an optional subject.
The news has been greeted with interest and has drawn praise from some quarters. But practical questions related to South Africa's current sociolinguistic and educational contexts must be asked. For instance, why does South Africa need another language on top of the local 11 as well as the various foreign languages some schools offer? Has the country done all it can to champion local languages before adding another to the mix? And is there space on an already crowded timetable to successfully carry on this project?
These questions shouldn't be ignored, but I would argue that the benefits of introducing Kiswahili far outweigh the risks. There are several reasons for this, among them the chance to prepare South African pupils for rich interactions in trade, academia and ordinary daily life elsewhere on the continent.
A growing language
Kiswahili most likely originated on East Africa's coast. It came about as a result of intermarriage between Bantu-speaking communities along the East African coast and Arabs who arrived at the coast from as early as before 10th C, AD. It then spread into the interior through trade, Christian activities such as missionary work, and exploration activities in the East African mainland.
Today the language is spoken widely in the larger Eastern Africa region as a lingua franca, a language used between people who don't speak one another's native language. It's a national language in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and an official language of the East African Community which comprises Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
Its use is spreading to southern, western and northern Africa. Currently, however, none of these countries are teaching Kiswahili as a subject the way South Africa intends to; instead, it is generally a language of trade and inter-ethnic communication. However, it may not be long until more countries join South Africa in teaching it in classrooms since the language is spreading fast and becoming a household language in many of these countries in addition to its adoption as one of the official languages of the African Union.
Kiswahili is also a popular research subject at many South African universities. And it's studied outside Africa, most particularly in the US and Europe. This global interest in the adoption of Kiswahili points at its growing international significance. This implies that its introduction into South African schools is a good move with multiple benefits.
Unpacking the benefits
South Africa's language in education policy provides for the teaching of first and second additional languages alongside a first language (which is usually English or Afrikaans). This is designed to create a truly multilingual and more inclusive society.
Among the many benefits of teaching Kiswahili is the fact that it will be an easy language for South Africans to learn compared to foreign languages from outside Africa. That's because it shares Bantu origins with languages like isiXhosa, isiZulu and isiNdebele. Bantu languages have long developed by borrowing and nativising the pronunciation and spelling of English words.
For instance the Kiswahili equivalents of "plastic", "school", "radio", and "computer" are plastiki, skuli, redio, and kompiuta. These spelling forms are not far from those in isiXhosa, isiZulu and other South African native languages.
Another benefit is that learning Kiswahili will prepare South Africa's children to live and work elsewhere on the continent. The country's many Master's and PhD graduates can't all hope to find work in the rest of the world; they could add enormous value on their own continent - especially with a working knowledge of Swahili.
If South Africans are enabled to speak a variety of languages from their own continent, they will then be better able to take part in building not only their own country but also building Africa as a continent.
Implications on local languages
So what might the downsides be if Kiswahili is introduced in South Africa's classrooms? I cannot identify any - if the process is carefully managed. It will take proper investment, political will and a thorough public education campaign to address the misconception that African languages are somehow "inferior".
This can all be done. South Africa needs to invest in textbooks, curriculum experts and researchers who can help guide the policy around Kiswahili. The only area that might be a struggle is the provision of qualified teachers. The country must look to places like Kenya and Tanzania, which graduates tens of thousands of teachers annually who cannot find work in their home countries. They can be the first source of teachers.
Secondly, South African universities can introduce short courses in Kiswahili to prepare a mass of native South Africans to be the next batch of teachers.
In multilingual societies, many languages coexist for the greater national good. South Africa's decision to embrace Swahili in schools should be celebrated.