In a random conversation in 2012, I asked my varsity roommate: “Eh jo! do you think there’s actually a way to preserve African Languages?” He responded: “Yah! Simple, what should happen is that when I speak in Sotho, you should understand me and respond in Venda and I should understand you.” This interesting but simple solution is obviously much more complex than he suggests here. Case in point is me writing an article about African languages in English or the existence of the idea of Anglophone and Francophone Africa, and the way we speak it so much perhaps English is an African Language? Who knows with these things? Re tla reng? Ri do ri mini? Sizothini?

What you hear, speaks volumes

It is important to note that this simple solution is centred on speaking the languages. Perhaps he was inadvertently speaking of the depth and power of the spoken word to preserve African languages. The auditory experience is key in how we make sense of languages and understand the world around us, which is why even in South Africa the Black American accent is so deeply entrenched in how we sound, we heard them everywhere “Nah Mean”. What we hear is key to our understanding of ourselves in the world, we initially come to know of our names because our parents/guardians call us with these names, only later do we learn how to write  them after hearing them being said out loud.  

The more we speak and hear our languages the more likely we are to ensure that they remain in our consciousness like the names we do not forget.

Talk the Talk

The speaking of African languages has been exclusively relegated to vernacular radio stations like Motsweding FM, Phalaphala FM and Ukhozi FM. Prime time television seems to believe that South Africans only speak English, the adverts, the promotions all point to this fact. So, it goes without saying that African languages need to be spoken to preserve them. This is also important because in their invariable nature the languages are more melodic and rhythmical than most. This means that even though you may read the words phonetically but what is key is how you say the words, take words like Xiluva (Tsonga), Xolani (Zulu) and Xela (TshiVenda). They all sound different even though they have similar word structures. This is just the surface level depth of African languages; we could go further and talk about the range of idioms and expressions that illuminate the beauty and essence of life. To avert the death, we must explore the depth of these languages and this requires us to go beyond the written word but the spoken word as well.

What is to be done?

Therefore, more people need this auditory experience to preserve these languages.  We need hear them on radio, television, conversation and more importantly literature. The rise of audiobooks globally presents a unique opportunity to ensure that African languages are preserved through being spoken. Like my friend’s simple solution, the more we speak and hear our languages the more likely we are to ensure that they remain in our consciousness like the names we do not forget.

Article by Hangwi Liphadzi, 16/09/2020


  1. If you want to use the photo it would also be good to check with the artist beforehand in case it is subject to copyright. Best wishes. Aaren Reggis Sela

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