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What is the value of a language?

Mother Tongues (continued)


What is the value of a language?


 I think there is more than one way to answer this, but it depends on what you mean by ‘value’. There is the commercial sense, i.e. can it be used to make money? But it is, of course, a sad thing to reduce the world to a dollar sign, and every post-industrial society finds out sooner or later that people cannot be satisfied by bread alone. Not even if there is also caviar.




How about ‘value’ as how scarce something is? If we look at it like this, we can see your mother tongue and/or dialect, whatever it is, is impossibly precious. Whether it is indigenous like isiZulu, Basque or Gaelic, colonial like French or English, or creolised like Afrikaans, it is a unique product of thousands or hundreds of years of linguistic evolution.


Think of a species of flowering plant. Whether rare or not, each species of flower is unique and each one took millions of years to evolve. Each one is beautiful in its own way, and each one is a miracle.


 Why now?


Once, a friend called an acquaintance on the phone and her young son answered, and addressed him in isiZulu. Later the mother angrily instructed her never to speak ‘that language’ to her son ever again. ‘Is that language going to make him CEO, when he goes for an interview, will they interview him in IsuZulu?’


Another person said, I hear you. But what good is me speaking Sesotho? I can’t even get a job in Lesotho. I refuse for my children to speak it and I shall not teach it to them. Well, I had no response to that. The funny thing is as a teacher, I am aware as many others, even top universities in the USA are looking for IsuZulu lecturers as I speak. Around the world Unicef, UN and other bodies, are fighting to get indigenous languages back in schools. It is a global movement, do they know something that we don’t.


Financial benefit


Is that really all that matters to us? Prosperity, at the cost of what? Do we really have to give up our humanity, for how long are we going to be colonized, how long can we be called Black Diamonds, How long can we continue to be mined? I believe the only thing we had left was our identity, our heritage, our culture, our land, our spirit. Losing all of this, who does that prosperity benefit in the end?


In Conclusion


When we hear of animal and plant species going extinct, we feel a sense of loss, and we feel like we should be doing more to prevent it. Is it because we are expecting to get rich from them somehow? No, it is because as human beings, we can sense that these plants and animals have some other value, over and above what they can do for us. Their value is just in existing. Should our languages too be lost forever, are they not worth fighting for?


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