Russel Kaschula on his book, Language, Identities and Intercultural Communication in South Africa

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Interview by Jennifer Cox

Jennifer Cox: Your book focuses on language in South Africa and other African countries and appears to be written for an African audience. Speaking as an American graduate student, I learned a lot from the book about the African linguistic landscape and the unique ways that language interacts with identity in African countries. What do you hope that readers from non-African countries will take away from your book?

Russell Kaschula: There are many multilingual countries in the world, including the USA, which is really a melting pot of languages and cultures (even though these languages are hardly recognized officially, with the exception of Spanish to some extent). In a sense, this allows for anyone interested in multilingualism and identity or identities to engage with the book. My hope is that people can identify with the issues in the book (even though it is Africa based) and that they will find themselves in the book as issues related to identity and multilingualism are universal. Indeed, we live in a global village and any issues related to language and gender, power, prejudice, workplace, identity and so on are universal to all of humanity.

Jennifer Cox: One concept I found intriguing at the beginning of the book was the debate over the place of colonial languages in African society, particularly the “yo-yo effect” that occurs when governments alternate between supporting exoglossic and African languages. I imagine that this instability has further complicated language attitudes in the countries where it occurs. How have unstable policies affected attitudes toward certain languages in South Africa and other African countries?

Russell Kaschula: The question of language attitudes is indeed an interesting one. At the forefront of such attitudes is the power of English and other exoglossic languages as global languages. Everyone aspires to English in South Africa and there is nothing wrong with that. However, as the late Professor Alexander said, it is often a case of English being unassailable but unattainable as we do not all have easy access to this language. Nevertheless, the post-democracy linguistic pendulum swung towards English in South Africa and there was a dismissive attitude towards indigenous languages, arguably a win for neocolonialism which perpetuates a neoliberal approach entrenched through English hegemony.

There is however an empowering legislative framework though the democratic Constitution and other legal texts which has helped to improve language attitudes related to the use of African Languages more generally. However, in the schooling system, the school governing bodies (SGBs) that are responsible for language policy still tend to retain English as a medium of instruction. There are however instances where in Cofimvaba, a rural area, where isiXhosa has been chosen as a language of instruction in schools by SGBs for mathematics and science. This all serves to changes our attitudes towards using African languages. If we do not follow such an approach, then we will be responsible for contributing to the colonial project rather than the decolonial project.  Language attitudes are central to freeing South Africans from the apartheid linguistic divide and rule policies of the past.

Language attitudes are indeed personal, but they need to be informed by issues of what languages work best in certain contexts such as education and the workplace. One learns best in a language that one understands best. It is that attitude that we need to change – to realize that our languages are resources that can be used and our attitudes to these languages are pivotal in freeing us from trying to persist with a language that is only a first language to 9.7% of the population.  These attitudes that favor English are often also entrenched through the media and advertising. However, the South African Broadcasting Association has done its best, creating over 15 radio stations operating in various languages, including UKHOZI FM which has over 9 million listeners and a number of television programmes in African languages. This has boosted the visibility of African languages and contributed to a more positive attitudinal change towards African languages, at least in the spoken domain.

Jennifer Cox: Throughout the book, you discuss critical theory and critical language awareness in relation to the linguistic situations in African countries. In one such discussion, you note that “the opposite view of critical theory is to emancipate people into societal structures that serve their true interests, and to allow them to choose the best options for themselves in their particular contexts, whether economic or otherwise” (p. 28). What are some examples of situations where this ideology has been implemented in language policy in African countries?

Russell Kaschula: There are examples from East Africa where a language such as Kiswahili has become a language of trade, industry and education. It is now also one of the working languages of the African Union. Ironically the banking sector in South Africa and elsewhere has been quite proactive in this regard, with one being able to choose an African language at the autobank in order to conduct one’s banking. This is true too of call centres. Cellular or mobile companies have also seen that if you speak to people through their own languages then it benefits these companies in the market place. In a nutshell, in order for this emancipation to take root, African languages need to gain capital value in the market. 

Jennifer Cox: Another recurring theme is the importance of embracing multilingualism and the effect that this policy could have on African economic development. You write that multilingualism should be seen as a resource on the same level as gold and African wildlife. Do you expect to see this attitude becoming more widespread in African countries in the near future? Are certain countries more likely than others to recognize the significance of multilingualism?

Russell Kaschula: Well – there is a difference between aspiration and reality. There will be pockets of excellence when it comes to the use of African languages as a resource. However, the reality is that language polices and usage is also linked to funding models, for example the World Bank requires countries to operate in English. Rwanda is a case in point that has suffered the yo-yo effect from Kinyarwanda and French to English. What is encouraging though is to see how people have developed urban varieties of African languages that are being used in the streets and even at universities. As the youth develop their identities it would seem to me that African languages and varieties of these languages have come back into play, from Sheng in Kenya to Sepitori and Afrikaaps in South Africa. This is an interesting space to watch as young people will now drive the decolonial project as they also drove the #feesmustfall protests against university fees. This places African languages back at the center of the voice of protest in African countries which is an important and continued development.

Jennifer Cox: One of the last chapters of the book presents an analysis of your own experiences with language and identity in the form of an autoethnography, including three short stories. What inspired you to include an autoethnographic piece in this work?

Russell Kascula: My own identity is beige – it is neither white nor black, European nor solely African. It is an amalgamation of experiences and linguistic repertoires. I guess this goes for many people in Africa and the world. So in my own mind I am choosing to celebrate this and to show that people are not one thing, but a conglomeration of history and contemporary realty. One’s life lies somewhere in between. I think my refusal to be boxed within an English only milieu and the opportunity that my multilingual background has offered me to be a better citizen has influenced these stories as part of an autoethnographic approach. At the end of the day we are all split, living in between spaces of constructed reality and that of fantasies, dreams, and aspirations.  

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