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Review of  Language Policy and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Reviewer: Kirsten Colquhoun
Book Title: Language Policy and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Book Author: Jon Orman
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Afrikaans
Issue Number: 20.4341

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AUTHOR: Jon Orman
TITLE: Language Policy and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa
SERIES: Language Policy
YEAR: 2008

Kirsten Colquhoun, EC Cambridge


This volume is part of a series aimed at scholars and those interested in
language planning and policy, as well as educational and applied linguistics and
sociolinguistics. This book surveys the current situation in South Africa. The
situation in post-apartheid South Africa is interesting with regards to the
governmental language policies and the reality of their implementation and
acceptance by the people of the country. This book provides an overview of the
relationship between national identity and language, illustrating how this has
manifested itself in the new South Africa. It is based on analyses of primary
and secondary materials, ranging from government documents and organisational
websites to press reports and academic texts, as well as interviews with
numerous language professionals and academics. It will be of interest especially
to those involved in language planning and policy, but also those interested in
the interplay of identity and language in multilingual societies, and finally to
anyone interested in the linguistic future of this country.

The introduction outlines the book's structure and aims: ''to investigate the
role of language policy and planning in the formation and consolidation of
national identities, first in a general theoretical sense and then with specific
application to the South African situation'' (6).

The second chapter discusses ethnic and national identities and their
relationships to language. This issue is of direct importance to the South
African situation, in that the new South Africa needs to create a new South
African identity in order for the country to move forward into the future as a
united community. The country is home to numerous different ethnic, social and
political groups and languages, which interact to form identities. However, the
nature of the relationships between language and ethnic identity and language
and national identity are difficult to define but still necessary to
conceptualise in order for it to be of use. Indeed, Orman points out that while
South Africans, Australians and the Scottish (among others, of course) all speak
a form of the same language (English) this fact doesn't detract from their
respective individual national identities. On the other hand, there exist
countries such as Switzerland which don't have a common language for the nation,
yet have a strong sense of national identity. It seems then that ''language is a
highly central and salient marker of [ethnic or national] identities'' (6).

The third chapter returns to definitional matters, this time setting up a
framework for the study of language policy and language planning. Language
policy is understood as a combination of linguistic ideology, practice and
language planning. Language planning is effectively defined as a sub-element of
language policy, which in turn is considered identity policy.

These chapters lay the foundation for an understanding of the situation in South
Africa. Chapter four provides a historical overview of the language situation,
describing how regimes have shaped national identity through language policies.
This was their attempts to construct and entrench group identities, from the
time of initial Dutch colonisation to British colonial policy, through the
apartheid years until the post-apartheid years. What emerges is the story of how
Afrikaans was promoted as the language of the country by the Afrikaner National
Party (NP), with English maintained as another national language, and other
languages designated languages of instruction. Understandably this led to a
rejection of Afrikaans along with the marginalisation of home languages in
favour of English as an international language.

The case of Afrikaans is then considered in Chapter Five, through the apartheid
years and the reign of the ANC to the present. It is pleasing to see someone
take notice of the effects of the apartheid government’s language (and social)
policies on Afrikaans, not only other African languages. Orman argues that while
English has clearly benefited the most among South Africa's languages in terms
of attributed status, Afrikaans is being marginalised as it is seen as the
language of the oppressors. However this does not take into account the fact
that Afrikaans is spoken by a large percentage of the population as a first
language, and not only by Afrikaners. Effectively, Afrikaans speakers are losing
out as a result of the policies of an Afrikaner-dominated government.

Chapter Six deals with language policies of the present ANC government and
outlines the problems of such policies. After the breakdown of apartheid, the
government abandoned the earlier language policy and instead implemented one
aimed at the linguistic equality of eleven languages, still in practice today.
In this way it seems the current government hopes to promote a national identity
based on linguistic pluralism, though it is not clear that this is a realistic

Furthermore, the numerous African languages spoken within South African are
being discarded in favour of English by the native-speakers themselves.
Additionally, English -- and Afrikaans -- speakers are not encouraged to learn
an African language, as there is no instrumental motivation, largely because the
government has not invested economic value in these languages (Kamwangamalu,
2004). Without equality between the languages of a country, the speakers will
not see any purpose in speaking languages other than those which are understood
to be economically, politically and socially important (Webb and Sure, 2000).
Consequently, Alexander (1989) has proposed the harmonisation of a number of
African languages to form a hybrid language which could then be advertised as a
common language for the country. Reaction to this idea though has ranged from
''the unenthusiastic to the downright hostile'' (158).

Finally, suggestions are given as to what the future of South Africa might hold
in terms of the creation of a national identity. Orman draws a parallel between
the hope for a unifying identity within the European Union and the situation in
South Africa. However Orman believes that ''it would seem unrealistic to hope or
plan for ... individual become the social norm through some
kind of 'civic virtue' taking hold amongst citizens'' (165). Instead, he proposes
that in order for African languages to be attractive to English and Afrikaans
speakers, they need to be assigned economic value.

Chapter Seven provides a general summary of the findings of the book and
suggests ideas for further research within this context.


Definitions of terms and background information are a necessary component of any
study, and the introductory chapters provide a good foundation, but they are
lengthy and dense in this case. More space could have been devoted to a further
account of the situation in South Africa, as suggested by the title.

Another aspect of the language debate in South Africa and the future of its
languages which could have been discussed is an examination of the many
varieties of South African English. While it is true that the majority of South
Africans strive for linguistic competence in English, what form would this
competence take? Which one of the many different forms of South African English
will be seen to be the most popular, and how will this influence the formation
of a national identity?

Still, Orman provides a refreshing view of the South African situation. He is
not afraid to criticise the ANC government, pointing out that the constant
reinforcement of historical identities ''acts as a barrier to the development of
a fully inclusive South African national identity'' (124). It is in the power of
the government now to take action to help future nation building.


Kamwangamalu, N.M. (2004). The language policy/language economics interface and
mother-tongue education in post-apartheid South Africa. In Language Problems and
Language Planning 28 (2): 131 - 146.

Webb, V.N. and K. Sure. (eds). 2000. African voices: An introduction to the
languages and linguistics of Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, N. (1989). Language policy and national unity in South Africa/Azania.
Cape Town: David Philip.
Kirsten Colquhoun is currently teaching English as a Foreign Language at a language school in Cambridge, UK, after recently completing an MPhil in English and Applied Linguistics at the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, in which she focussed on theories of language learning as they relate to second language acquisition, and language change. As a South African, she is especially interested in the language situation there, and how it is adapting to the changing political and social situation.

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