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Language knows no borders

Oct 14, 2020

Many of you know that feeling: In a strange place in a strange country, you unexpectedly hear someone speak your language. Or (which can sometimes be worse) you speak your mother tongue and think no one can understand you, but suddenly someone answers you. There are many anecdotes about this, but what it proves is that South Africans are increasingly travelling and migrating, with the result that our indigenous languages are no longer limited to the southern tip of Africa.

Of course, this also applies to all other languages because modern technology has made populations more mobile than ever. Here we are not talking about the influence of viruses and lockdowns, but about the pre- and ‒ hopefully ‒ post-COVID-19 era.

The speakers of languages smaller than the mighty English, Chinese/Mandarin, French, Arabic and Spanish must take the influence of migration into account while also allowing us to maintain our languages. In the past, research has shown that emigrants usually lost their mother tongue to the language of their destination within three generations. Nowadays, however, technology is making the survival of native languages among migrant groups more viable than a century ago.

At a language conference in Friesland in 2019, the speakers of Afrikaans, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Amazigh and Basque, among others, put heads together to discuss ways in which we can keep our languages alive inside and outside their borders. Actions like Worldwide are, of course, one way this can be done ‒ the newsletter and social media platforms keep people abroad in touch with their language. Movies, documentaries, music, magazines, newspapers, books, audiobooks and other products in a language also contribute.

The Welsh delegates, for example, told us how the crime series Hinterland sparked interest in and breathed new life into the use of Welsh. The series was filmed twice ‒ both in English and Welsh. In the English version, Welsh is also used, with English captions. Series like these do a lot for the confidence of speakers of smaller languages to use their language ‒ even after migration.

One of the most remarkable communities being studied by linguists all over the world is the “Boers” who moved to Argentina after the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). It is one of the groups that has retained their language the longest in the midst of a foreign-language community after emigration. This is probably because they settled in remote Patagonia and had little contact with their Spanish neighbours. The documentary The Boers at the End of the World / Die Boere op die Aardsdrempel ( tells their story.

Galician-speaking immigrants also kept their mother tongue alive in Argentina. Galician is the language of a large number of Spanish citizens. During the Francoist dictatorship (1936–1975), appalling violation of language rights took place in Spain. General Francisco Franco declared Spanish (also known as Castilian) to be the only official language of Spain. Ironically, he was a native of Galicia, but he used Spanish as a nationalist instrument and banned the public use of the country’s other languages (Galician, Basque and Catalan). Violations were sometimes even punished with imprisonment and deportation. Giving non-Castilian names to babies was not even allowed. Over time, the measures eased slightly, and after Franco’s death in 1975 with the transition to democracy, the other languages were recognised once again. Galician is now one of the official languages of Spain. It is being taught in schools and there is a public Galician television channel, namely Televisión de Galicia. Decades of suppression has obviously done great damage to the language. During the dictatorship, however, Galician literature, in particular, was kept alive and regenerated by Galician emigrants and exiles who settled in Buenos Aires. Thanks to their continued use of and creation in their language, teaching with Galician as a medium of instruction could resume with more than the use of pre-1936 texts and nostalgia. This proves that migration can also be a lifeline for language, even if the situation will not be sustainable indefinitely.

Language travels with us across borders. Its history is not a cold science, but the story of people swept away willingly or unwillingly by currents, of nostalgia and longing, but also of dreams and hopes that remain alive within us.

About the author

Alana Bailey

Alana Bailey is Head of Cultural Affairs at AfriForum

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