Communities trying to revive indigenous languages

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It began with Bradley van Sitter’s controversial praise singing at 2019’s SONA, but what it has done is to highlight indigenous languages and its development. Many Khoisan languages are listed as endangered by UNESCO.

The speakers of the ancient language N/uu say is critically endangered with only three people able to speak it fluently. In South Africa, Nama was in the same boat a few years ago.

Several communities are trying to revive languages such as Nama or Khoekhoegowab.

Two Northern Cape schools now teach Nama and in other areas, teacher Pieter Samboya is one of the people trying to revive the language.

“The aim of the school is to prevent the indigenous language, the Khoi languages and especially Nama, from dying out. We laid a foundation in Upington and Concordia and we are building on that so the languages can be officially recognised.”

Another teacher Sylvia Minnies says that children are very excited to learn Nama.

“The children are very excited to learn the language. Once they master the clicks, then they catch on quickly. We as Nama people must be proud of our heritage and start speaking our language with pride.”

In Namibia, Nama is taught at University level. The University of Cape Town is now doing the same. The idea is to develop the language to a point where it will attain official language status. This will mean a budget and other benefits to develop the language.

Nama speaker, Willem Damarah, says the language currently has no economic and educational value.

“The younger generations see now value in learning Nama. It doesn’t have economic value, also no education value at the moment. There is no job that requires you to know Nama. In fact, it seems you might get a job quicker if you don’t know Nama.”

Katriena Esau has been trying to revive the ancient N/uu language for the past few decades. She’s worried that despite her efforts, the language might die with her.

“The language is so scarce, you can go anywhere and you won’t find people who can speak it. Even if you can see that this person is a San, he won’t be able to speak it. It’s a struggle to teach the children so that the language doesn’t die out, but it’s difficult for them to remember what I teach them.”

Language specialists believe the best way to revive and preserve a language is for it to take root in the youth and for people to embrace their language and culture.