22 September 2021 | Story Prof Theo du Plessis | Photo Supplied
Emeritus Professor Theo du Plessis is an expert on language policy and planning studies.

Opinion article by Prof Theo du Plessis, Professor Emeritus, Department of South African Sign Language and Deaf Studies at the University of the Free State (UFS).

→ Lees: Meningstuk: Is dit belangrik om Suid-Afrikaanse Gebaretaal te bevorder? 

South African Sign Language (SASL) is the smallest recognised language in South Africa. Although some of the country's deaf organisations claim that more than one million South Africans use this language, the 2011 census survey records only 234 655 citizens who use SASL as ‘first spoken language’. One must keep in mind that this number may include naturally hearing children of deaf parents. By implication, the estimated one million figure therefore includes citizens who use SASL as an additional language, including a reasonable percentage of hard-of-hearing citizens, but of course also hearing citizens who have learned the language as a result of regular contact with deaf people. As such, SASL ends up as a language of more or less the same order of magnitude as isiNdebele (1 090 223 speakers), siSwati (1 297 046 speakers) and Tshivenda (1 209 388 speakers), in other words, within the group of ‘smaller’ South African languages. One could also include the non-Bantu Click Languages, such as Nama. Unfortunately, the census survey does not yet list this language group separately, despite the Constitution's recognition in this regard. At this stage, citizens who use a language such as Nama as their first spoken language fall under the census category ‘Other languages’ (828 258 speakers), i.e., together with languages such as French, Hindi, etc.

Promoting SASL will highlight other small languages 

The question whether it is important to promote SASL therefore also has implications for South Africa's other smaller languages and, in this regard, for smaller languages in general. However, our Constitution does not draw any distinction between recognised South African languages in terms of size, but rather follows an egalitarian approach by envisaging the promotion of the recognised languages, regardless of their size. Section 6 of the Constitution specifically entrusts the Pan South African Language Council according to the Ideal Typology of Language Cultivation and Planning of language sociologist Harald Haarmann, (PanSALB), a statutory body, with this responsibility by requiring the board to promote the eleven official languages, the non-Bantu Click Languages (including Nama), as well as “sign language [sic]” (by implication SASL) AND at the same time, to create conditions for their development and use. From a language planning point of view, this is already a particularly ambitious assignment, but in addition, one that is assigned to a statutory body; institutions about which there is a healthy degree of cynicism in South Africa, given their dubious performance since 1994. Just think of the current debate on the Public Protector. Nevertheless, according to the Ideal Typology of Language Cultivation and Planning of language sociologist Harald Haarmann, the ideal typology of language cultivation and language planning provides that governmental and statutory institutions are relatively more effective with language promotion in terms of organisational impact than non-governmental and non-statutory institutions such as pressure groups, language organisations, and individuals. Effectiveness in this typology rests on a well-worked language plan that is indeed implemented. Where such institutions fall short, it goes without saying that non-governmental and non-statutory institutions will have to step in to save the day.

In the light of PanSALB’s constitutional mandate, the opening question whether it is important to promote SASL (and in this respect, also the other listed languages) is, in fact, irrelevant. This is important, because the Constitution requires it; it is that simple. One should therefore rather ask why the Constitution considers the promotion of the three mentioned groups of languages important.

The Constitution promotes languages 

As a starting point, it will help to keep in mind that the Constitution links language promotion to language development and language use (in this case not how the language is used, but that the language is used, i.e., language use distribution). In language planning terms, language development refers, among other things, to the development and standardisation of the language corpus and language code. These include the development of a writing system, grammar, glossaries, dictionaries, terminology, curricula, literature, etc. Such development is a prerequisite for the use of the language in education, both for teaching the language and the language as a means of instruction.
Language spread refers to how the language literally spreads through increasing use by the community within different contexts. Teaching also plays an important role in this – is the language taught as a subject, but also as an additional or foreign language? (Within language sociology, a foreign language is regarded as a language that the learner does not actually hear or use in his or her daily life.) There is therefore clearly a complicated relationship between language development and language use distribution – the more different people within different contexts use the designated language, the more that language develops, and the more it develops, the more people will want to use it in a variety of contexts.

One way of trying to answer why the Constitution considers the promotion of, among others, a language such as SASL important, is to look at the individual language rights that the Constitution grants, as contained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Some of the more striking individual language rights come to the fore:

1. Section 29 of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to education in the official language(s) of your choice. Although SASL is not (yet) an official language in South Africa, the South African Schools Act stipulates that the language is regarded as an official language for the purposes of learning in a public school. Obviously, this provision therefore requires that SASL be developed for teaching purposes and that such development be promoted. The institutionalisation of SASL as home language within the so-called CAPS system since 2014 is an obvious example of the effective promotion of the language by both a government body – in this case the Department of Basic Education, and a statutory body – Umalusi (the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training). However, in order to promote the use of SASL, the language should now also be taught as an additional language. The Use of Official Languages Act paves the way for this by requiring state institutions as well as statutory institutions to be able to communicate effectively with members of the public who choose to use SASL. Of course, this can be achieved through professional interpreting services, but certainly also through programmes that develop language skills in SASL, as is currently the case at some South African universities. PanSALB's SASL Charter also promotes this objective.

2. Sections 30 and 31 of the Bill of Rights guarantee the cultural right to use the language of your choice within the community and organisation of your choice. It goes without saying that the responsibility for language promotion actions within these context rests on the shoulders of pressure groups, cultural institutions, and individuals. Organisations within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community play an important role in this, but of course one also wants to see that PanSALB will play a more prominent role here, as well as institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and the commission with the long name (the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic communities – in short, the CLR Rights Commission). PanSALB's SASL Charter can play an important role in this as an instrument for language promotion.

3. Section 35(3)(k) of the Bill of Rights guarantees a court hearing in a language that the accused understands or, where this is not possible, to have the proceedings interpreted in that language. Now that South Africa's Chief Justice has proclaimed English as the language of record in courts , the first part of the provision largely falls away. A dignified interpreting service requires well-trained SASL interpreters with appropriate language skills. PanSALB's SASL Charter has a lot to say about the serious shortcomings in this area; actually, an uncharted area for the kind of language promotion provided by the Constitution.

4. Section 35(4) of the Bill of Rights guarantees information to an arrested, detained, and accused person in a language that the person understands. Given the current state of South Africa's police service, one can only imagine how difficult it is to exercise this right, hence PanSALB's SASL Charter also envisages extensive promotion actions in this regard. Here too, a lot of work awaits the (language promotion) shop.

Is it important to promote SASL? From this factual overview we note why the South African drafters of the constitution consider the promotion of SASL to be important. Apart from the fact that such promotion actually contributes to the realisation of language rights in the Bill of Rights, it also contributes significantly to the realisation of the ideals of the Constitution as contained in the preamble to the Constitution. The aim to “increase the quality of life of all citizens and unlock the potential of every human being”, particularly catches the eye. The promotion of SASL is therefore important because it serves a noble cause.

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