Ngwaga o mosha batho betsho! I finished the previous year with a series of columns which addressed matters of Botswana’s linguistic spread. Some of those columns were a response to the opinions of the respectable Prof. Saleshando while others were a response to the views of her son, the Hon Dumelang Saleshando, on linguistic matters. The columns were found to be much informative by some and incredibly provocative by others. The national discourse on linguistic matters is most welcome, and regardless of how heated it turns out to be, it shines a spotlight on some dark crevices and illuminates what were hitherto contentious matters. Part of the anger that was expressed by some towards the articles, including one from an invisible PhD holder throwing salvos concealed behind a pseudonym, was motivated by a conflation of linguistics and ethnicity. This problem recurs in Botswana language discourse and is most frustrating. The nature of the problem is this: To say ten people speak Setswana, you are not claiming that such speakers are Tswana ethnically. You are barely stating their linguistic competence. That is how the claim by the Chebanne and Ramahobo (2003) paper entitled Language use and language knowledge in Botswana should be understood. They report the following languages together with the percentage of their home speakers: Setswana 78.2%, Ikalanga 7.9%, Shekgalagari 2.8%, English 2.2%, Sesarwa 1.9%, Mbukushu 1.7%, Others (foreign) 1.2%, Herero 0.7%, Sebirwa 0.7%, Shona 0.7%, Ndebele 0.5%, Afrikaans 0.4%, Setswapong 0.3%, Subiya 0.4%, Shiyeyi 0.3%, and Sekgothu 0.04%. These percentages are not of the size of the ethnic group, but of speakers of a certain home language nationally. They are important in that they reveal whether a language is declining or improving in its usage at home. The greatest weakness with the statistics is that the information doesn’t reveal the multilingualism of the country at an individual level. What the census doesn’t capture are the other languages that are used at home by an individual since many Botswana citizens are multilingual and it would have been informative to capture this multilingualism by asking the question: “Apart from the language that you commonly use at home, which other language(s) do you speak at home?”
Having accepted our linguistic diversity we must move further and accept something else; that not all languages are equal. In our politically correct way, sometimes we rush to make the claim that all languages are equal. This is misleading. Online top ten languages are: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian and Korean while the overall top ten languages of the world in terms of usage are Mandarin/Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and German. The statistic is on the basis of their distribution and their number of speakers. It has been noted that 96% of the world’s population speaks 6% of the world’s languages – a perfect Zipfian fit. None of the African languages, not even Swahili, features in this list of the world’s top 10 languages.
We must however bring the matter to the Botswana situation. For now let us leave the position of English and Setswana aside and focus on the minority languages themselves, which have the following percentages of home speakers: Ikalanga 7.9%, Shekgalagari 2.8%, Sesarwa 1.9%, Mbukushu 1.7%, Others (foreign) 1.2%, Herero 0.7%, Sebirwa 0.7%, Shona 0.7%, Ndebele 0.5%, Afrikaans 0.4%, Setswapong 0.3%, Subiya 0.4%, Shiyeyi 0.3%, and Sekgothu 0.04%. It is clear that not all of these minority languages are equal at least in terms of their distribution and number of speakers. Kalanga is the big brother. That is why a government commissioned study: A study of the third language teaching in Botswana conducted by three eminent UB linguists Batibo, Mathangwane and Tsonope presented to government some eight years ago in 2003 recommended the teaching of Kalanga as a third language. Of the minority languages, Kalanga possesses the greatest number of speakers and spread in the country. This is an important point which Kalanga speakers as well as members of SPIL must grasp and use to separate themselves from much smaller languages. To maintain that all the languages are equal will continue to limit the development and recognition of the Kalanga language in Botswana since the government’s response will always be: that if it acceded to the demand to introduce Ikalanga into the curriculum, then it would be forced to include all the other languages into the curriculum; something which the government may argue, as it has done before, that it does not have the capacity to achieve. I am not unaware of the proposition that has been advanced before by some, that perhaps the South African model of eleven official languages is something to be admired, copied and replicated here at home. But the same people who militate for this position never mention that there are about 80 languages in South Africa, over fifty of which are not official languages, amongst which is Hindi, spoken by over one million residents of Durban! The overarching focus should be to develop detailed strategies of developing and promoting all of Botswana’s languages which currently are at the different stages of development. The different forms that such development will take are a matter of debate. Such strategies may include recognising that language is part of the broader national cultural heritage. Therefore, it should be developed together with other cultural and artistic national wealth. The language of the people; their rituals, their music, their pottery, their dress; all must be preserved in the interest of our national diversity. They may not be equal or similar but they are all important.