It also reminds us that a great deal of work must still be done to preserve and promote our mother languages around the world – with special attention to minority languages.

The linguistic pluralism – and more specifically the status of minority languages within nation states – is a fundamental and complex political and social issue. History counts numerous attempts to impose cultural and linguistic uniformity in multicultural countries – often resulting in the repression of linguistic and cultural diversity. Examples include the Kurds in Turkey, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the current situation of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

The recognition of multilinguism in national constitutions is without any doubt an essential starting point for the preservation of minority languages. The Constitution of South Africa clearly recognises language diversity within its territory. Even more, the Constitution establishes several rights linked to the languages, such as the right to receive education in the official language of one’s choice in public educational institutions (section 29) and the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice (section 30). The Constitution guarantees South Africans individual freedom in using their own languages, freedom from linguistic discrimination and the assurance that their languages will be treated equitably and will enjoy parity of esteem.

South Africa – with 11 official languages – faces a major challenge in assuring the language rights of its diverse population. English is becoming more and more the main language of instruction, to the detriment of African languages and Afrikaans. The imposition of English as the language of tuition in primary education poses a serious threat to the educational development and cultural diversity of non-English speaking children.

In this context and as one of the main pillars of human development, educational institutions have a key role to play. The education of children should – as far as possible – be conducted in their mother language. According to UNESCO Guidelines on Language and Education published in 2003, “Mother tongue instruction is essential for initial instruction and literacy and should be extended to as late a stage in education as possible”. Educating children in the same language they speak at home greatly facilitates the learning process and provides a sound base for the more effective acquisition of global languages – like English – in high school. It also improves prospects for social and professional integration.

In too many schools, School Governing Bodies – which are responsible for deciding on the school’s language policy – choose English as the language of tuition – because they believe incorrectly that it will enhance the educational prospects of their children. This has often led to situations where primary school children are taught in English – a language that they do not understand – by teachers whose first language is not English. Experience has shown that children learn English more effectively from a solid base in their own mother languages.

Furthermore, we also need to bear in mind that improving education and preserving multilinguism is a shared responsibility. On the one hand, the state has a clear duty to preserve and develop linguistic and cultural diversity in accordance with the Constitution, which stipulates that “the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of the indigenous languages” (section 6.2). On the other hand, parents must play an active role promoting their home languages and in ensuring that their children enjoy the right to receive education in the language of their choice. Without the active support of parents and communities, South Africa’s rich variety of languages will inevitably wither and die.

Effective education policies – including specific training for the teaching of minority languages and adequate teaching and learning materials – together with a better implementation of the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) can and must play a central role to ensure high-quality education in minority languages. However, a considerable number of civil society and political actors have pointed out that action taken by PanSALB (established by the Constitution with the aim, among others, to promote and create conditions for the development and use of all official languages) is insufficient. There are also reported dysfunctions, such as inefficient budget management, internal problems and lack of effective measures. In any case, it is undeniable that decisions and measures taken today will define in the medium and long term the place that every language in South Africa will occupy – and how they will contribute to cultural diversity and a more equal society.

The diverse South African languages reflect our various identities and comprise one of our richest heritages. They have their roots deep in our diverse histories – but how they are developed and preserved will determine the identities of future generations of South Africans.

Ana Rio, intern: FW de Klerk Foundation