Afrikaans vs. English

In 2004, the new constitution of Namibia declared English the sole official language. Up to then, both English and Afrikaans, as a result of South African control of the country, had been the country’s official languages. The administrative and military control was largely exercised through Afrikaans, however. It would have been much easier for the country to stick to Afrikaans. Though it was associated with the country’s white nationalist government, most Namibians were willing to learn it because it was the main language of schooling from fourth grade on and the main language for access to employment. None of the indigenous languages could compete with it. Neither could English. It was rarely used and not widely known. It was spoken only be 2% of the population, mostly in urban areas. Afrikaans was reasonably successful as a lingua franca. Continuing with Afrikaans would have had the advantages of continuity, the ability to use the existing human resources. On the other hand, Afrikaans had negative connotations for most of the people, and English could be regarded as the ethnically most neutral language and be seen as a unifying factor. However, it was not neutral with regards to class – the few who did know English well constituted an elite, whether members of the former ruling class or the well-educated political leadership who had been in exile. Elevating an indigenous language to the status of official language or medium of instruction would have been problematic for political and practical reasons and favoured one ethnic group over the other. For English, a vast array of educational resources was already available in other countries. In practice, however, the implementation of English meant that quite a lot of problems had to be overcome: Many delegates to the first parliament were unable to participate in the discussions because they had insufficient knowledge of English. Not enough teachers had sufficient proficiency in English to teach other subjects in English. And it was difficult for learners to do all their academic work in English which so far they had only studied as a school subject. (McCormick, Kay: “English and other languages”, in: Seargeant, Philip & Swann, Joan (ed.): English in the World. History, Diversity, Change. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012: 255-9)


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