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 <pete_unsethgial.edu>
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
-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
The book's title should not be confused with the new book edited by
Mesthrie sharing the same main title LANGUAGE IN SOUTH AFRICA
(http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-176.html). 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.
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)
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''
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
Bibliography of works cited:
Jansen, Jonathan. 1998. Curriculum reform in South Africa: A critical
analysis of outcomes-based education. Cambridge Journal of Education
Mesthrie, Rajend, ed. 2002. Language in South Africa. Cambridge
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.