LINGUIST List 14.452

Fri Feb 14 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Webb (2002)

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  • Pete Unseth, Language in South Africa

    Message 1: Language in South Africa

    Date: Fri, 14 Feb 2003 12:44:03 +0000
    From: Pete Unseth <>
    Subject: Language in South Africa

    Webb, Vic. (2002) Language in South Africa: The Role of Language in National Transformation, Reconstruction and Development. John Benjamins, hardback ISBN 90-272-1849-8, xxii+356, $110/Euro 110, Impact: Studies in Language and Society 14.

    Peter Unseth, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL, Intl.


    Language in South Africa is an in-depth study of the sociology of language in present day RSA (Republic of South Africa) and a set of clear proposals for what should be done in the future. It will obviously be required reading for any who study the language situation in South Africa, but it also deserves to be studied widely by those who study language policy or have responsibilities in developing language policy in areas where some languages are marginalized but there is a desire to increase their value and function. Additionally, specific chapters can be profitably assigned to classes, e.g. chapter 3, the sociolinguistic profile of RSA.

    The author is a white South African sociolinguist, but very committed to empowering the previously marginalized Bantu languages of South Africa. He summarizes the present situation:

    -English is now the language of power, prestige, and interethnic communication -Afrikaans is widely known but stigmatized -Bantu languages are negatively valued (even by speakers), seen as having very limited economic value, useful only for social and religious purposes.

    The book's title should not be confused with the new book edited by Mesthrie sharing the same main title LANGUAGE IN SOUTH AFRICA ( Nor should it be confused with Webb's 1995 'LANGUAGE IN SOUTH AFRICA: an input into language planning for a post-apartheid South Africa', a published report for the Languages in Contact and Conflict in Africa program (presumably the present volume addresses some of the same topics as the 1995 report).

    These volumes are part of a burst of recent scholarly publishing on sociolinguistics in South Africa, also reflected in two recent issues of International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 136 (1999) and 144 (2000) and the books reviewed therein.

    Critical evaluation:

    Webb makes no pretense of being a neutral observer, 'simply recording the objective fact'. In his preface, he explicitly states that the book is a call to the RSA government to seriously engage in language planning, acknowledging that ''language planning is basically a political act... The problems will not be resolved in a 'natural' way, 'sorting themselves out'. State intervention is necessary'' (p. 2,3).

    Nor does he make any pretense of being neutral regarding the merits of an enforced multilingualism or of the feasibility of using the nine official Bantu languages in education and government functions. He makes a strong plea for the government to lead the way in valuing, developing, and utilizing all the 11 official languages of South Africa. The negative side of his strong activist approach is that it seems top-down, a visionary imposing his (very well intentioned) policies.

    Webb tackles the inevitable argument that developing and using the Bantu languages will be too expensive. He points out that not utilizing these languages has great hidden costs to South African society and argues that using the Bantu languages will also have great hidden benefits, not all of them measurable financially.

    He will make some South Africans uncomfortable with his vision of a country where the Bantu languages (and cultures!) are given respect and value they have not had for 200 years. ''South Africa must relinquish its Euro-centric and colonialist preferences, and accept its African destiny'' (p. 167).

    He will also make many South Africans uncomfortable with his call for a continued large role for Afrikaans. The place of Afrikaans in today's South Africa is complex: it is widely known across racial lines, but is now widely stigmatized. The question of language and identity is especially complex in that ''Being Afrikaans-speaking is [now] not considered a linguistic term, but a socio-political issue'' (p. 35).

    As part of his plan for developing a corps of trained language planning and management leaders, Webb calls for a reformation of post-secondary linguistic training in RSA, moving away from Euro-American models. He sees these models as overly focused on abstract topics and concentrating too much on English. He demands a focus on equipping students to grapple effectively with sociolinguistic problems, questions of language/dialect, development of standardized forms of languages, multilingualism, etc.

    The book is organized as follows:

    Chapter 1- Invisible voices: the problem of languages in South Africa- Here, Webb summarizes the types of problems in the language situation in RSA. More specifically, he focuses on the marginalized languages and their speakers, those who have the most language 'problems'. There are now 11 official languages in RSA: English, Afrikaans, and 9 Bantu languages (with some entailing questions about language/dialect boundaries). English is highly valued but not adequately known, Afrikaans is stigmatized but known fairly widely, the Bantu languages are widely known but not valued.

    Chapter 2- Exploring the maze: the macro-context for language policy and language planning in South Africa-- This chapter presents a summary of the author's framework for language planning and a helpful summary of the foundational documents of RSA's new language policy, including the Constitution.

    Chapter 3- The nature of things: a sociolinguistic profile of South Africa-- Here Webb presents a variety of statistics: numbers of speakers of each language, language preferences for different functions, distribution of languages by province and by urban/rural, bilingualism by race, literacy skills, etc. The author laments that many of the statistics are outdated or are only for limited areas, calling for national sociolinguistic fact-finding audits.

    He also describes the use of different languages in education at different levels, by the judiciary, in corpus development. He sums it all up with a helpful set of diagrams showing relative power relations between languages.

    Chapter 4- For the people, by the people: language and state administration-- Webb calls for clear, constructive government leadership and intervention in language management, actively promoting true multilingualism and the use and value of Bantu languages. As a noteworthy concrete step, he suggests requiring ability in a Bantu language as a requirement for being hired or promoted in many government jobs.

    He examines the current policies and practices of government agencies, citing points that are not in conformity with (at least the spirit of) the new policies. For example, several organizations and publications have changed from using Afrikaans (and English) to English (only). Under such practices, English gains, Afrikaans loses, Bantu languages and true multilingualism make no gains.

    Chapter 5- The power of one: language and nation-- Webb admits that RSA has few bonds that hold the people together, no 'glorious tradition', so he calls for steps toward 'nation building' with language being an integral part of this process. He believes the adoption of a South African identity should not replace an ethnic identity, but be an additional, wider identity. There should be no conflict between being a Zulu and being a South African.

    Carefully defining a 'national language', he believes NO language should be chosen as a single national language, neither Bantu nor English or Afrikaans. Any one of these would probably isolate and enrage large parts of the population.

    He argues that language planning can only be successful when there is a broader policy and implementation. Then, language can be a facilitator of multilingualism and pluralism. In the present circumstances, speakers of Bantu languages are limited in their ability to enter in to the political process in a meaningful way. The topic of 'language rights' is discussed, but is complex with ramifications for groups, territories, and individuals, and also groups that have left traditional territories and migrated to urban centers.

    He identifies 'political will' as the key factor in implementing his proposals. He points out how Afrikaans was a stigmatized speech form in the mid 19th century, but by political will (sparked by political and religious movements) became a dominant language.

    He closes that chapter by admitting 'The ideas presented in this chapter may be too optimistic and too idealistic, and it may be difficult to give concrete substance to them' (p. 167). Sadly, this may be true, but voicing them is still important, declaring a vision of what can be and how to achieve it.

    Chapter 6- Growing potential: language in education-- This chapter on the language situation in schools and his proposed changes is his longest, and likely most important. A policy of multilingualism in RSA will have to counter the desire of many Bantu-speaking parents that their children be educated in English as early as possible. Webb cites studies that show children learn best when they study in a language they know well, so calls for children to begin schooling in their own languages, then be introduced to English after they have developed adequate cognitive skills in their own languages. However, many Black parents skeptically view this as a continuation of Apartheid, meant to disadvantage their children. Webb calls for efforts to educate parents on the advantages of such education, but this is still the major hurdle, possibly insurmountable.

    Webb realizes that using Bantu languages for teaching and learning will require not only the development of curriculum and written materials, but retraining teachers in both skills and attitudes (as well as the trainers of teachers). That language affairs are low on some higher educators' priorities is seen in a recent study of teacher education in RSA where the only reference to language was by teachers responding to a survey, while the author did not touch the topic (Sayed 2002).

    He strays from the expected topics of a sociolinguist in arguing for an outcomes-based approach to education, a choice that is not unanimously endorsed in South Africa (or elsewhere) (Sayed 2002:393, Jansen 1998).

    Chapter 7- Spreading the wealth: language and economic development-- Webb does not allow himself to view language policy as restricted to such topics as bilingual education and questions of language choices in courts. He follows the 'linguistic economics' ideas of Francois Grin and addresses the economic effects of the present language situation, where English is often necessary for promotion and employees who speak Bantu languages are unable to communicate with their supervisors nor understand safety warnings. He steps beyond language policy and calls for changes from top-down management policy to a more participatory style, a stand consistent with his drive to empower and include the marginalized.

    He argues that implementing a proper multilingual language policy will have some financial costs, but it will actually contribute to the RSA economy in increased production and broader participation in a knowledge based economy. Also, he argues that the status quo has great financial costs (though hidden).

    Chapter 8- Giving voice: language promotion-- Webb outlines a strategic plan for language promotion and proposes specific ways to promote the various languages. For the Bantu languages, part of his plan is to prepare lists of technical vocabulary and standardize their usage, but it is not clear why he seems to reject such lists prepared previously.

    Chapter 9- Steering the course: language management-- This chapter on the management of language policy and promotion is noteworthy, addressing issues usually untouched by sociolinguists because it is outside of our expertise, but a topic that needs to be addressed, nonetheless.

    Bibliography of works cited:

    Jansen, Jonathan. 1998. Curriculum reform in South Africa: A critical analysis of outcomes-based education. Cambridge Journal of Education 28.3:321-331.

    Mesthrie, Rajend, ed. 2002. Language in South Africa. Cambridge University Press.

    Sayed, Yusuf. 2002. Changing forms of teacher education in South Africa: a case study of policy change. International Journal of Educational Development 22:381-395.


    Peter Unseth worked for 12 years in Ethiopia, before, during and after the drastic changes in language policy that followed the 1991 revolution. His work in Ethiopia included teaching at Addis Ababa University and leading a literacy project for a minority language. He is currently on the faculty of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, in the Language Development department.