The San are one of the oldest groups to inhabit Southern Africa. From Zimbabwe and South Africa, to Botswana and Namibia, the San people have their own repertoire of languages, easily recognizable by their use of clicks. The influence of these languages on the peoples they encountered is still visible to this day, with the best example being isiXhosa, which integrated the clicks into their speech.
Unfortunately, many of these San languages, such as Khwe and !Xu, no longer exist. They join a list of languages that have now gone extinct, and with the relentless dominance of international languages such as English and French, the survival of the world’s small language groups is increasingly coming under threat.
A San man from the Kalahari area of central Namibia, explains the uses they give to a grass, in their khoisan language characterized by the use of click consonants.
UNESCO data indicates that if no efforts are made to conserve them, half of the languages currently spoken today will be extinct by the end of the 21st century.
Of the world’s 6000 languages, an estimated 2000 are in Africa. In the continent, English and French still dominate, a remnant of colonization. Although countries such as Ghana have made concerted efforts to prioritize the use of indigenous languages in education. Primary school children now learn in Twi, Ga, Fante in addition to English, a move which assures that learners are able to communicate on a global platform, while consolidating their home language and keeping it alive. However, in the Western African region, there are 50 languages that face extinction.
In Southern Africa, the situation is slightly different. Zimbabwean primary and secondary schools plan on introducing Mandarin, French and Portuguese into the syllabus. In South Africa, a proposal to teach student Mandarin has not been well received by educators and the general public, who call instead for more focus on indigenous languages, which they feel have been neglected by the education system. However, vulnerable language groups are not included in this call for more inclusivity.
Professor Mark De Vos is a linguistics professor at Rhodes University, as well as serving as the president of the Linguistics Society of Southern Africa. Having studied language variation with recent focus on indigenous languages, De Vos is concerned with efforts to conserve endangered languages in Southern Africa. “If people don’t see a need to conserve or speak a language outside that language’s community, it (the language) will die.” With little to no support from local government agencies and lack of funding into research, the question now is what can be done to save more languages from extinction, and why is it important to document and promote them?
With the death of each language, a well of knowledge is lost. Some languages such as |Xam are lucky enough to have been documented before extinction, so researchers and linguists have some texts to work with. Many others have not been so lucky. In order to prevent such losses in the future, conservation efforts from ordinary citizens, researchers and agencies to must protect the languages that need it the most. Our common human heritage is at stake.