Last week Bagalatia Arone put before parliament a motion in which he wanted government to introduce broadcast of news in all indigenous languages with developed orthographies. He was precisely arguing that Radio Botswana and Botswana television should broadcast in all of Botswana’s languages. This motion was defeated. Let me hasten to say I totally believe that all Botswana languages should not only be protected and developed, but they should also be used extensively in the media. However, I do not believe all Botswana’s 28 languages should be used on Radio Botswana or Btv. That is not practical. Actually, I cannot even name a single radio station in the world which broadcasts in 10 languages. South Africa is a common (bad) example that many run to quote as an example. However in the South African case these is no single radio or tv station that broadcasts even in 5 different languages. Not only that, usually the languages are grouped together in some way that makes linguistic sense. For instance Sotho/Tswana languages: Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa and Southern Sotho are usually used on the same television channel while Zulu and Xhosa are usually grouped together. However in the South African case radio stations generally broadcast using a single language and are not as multilingual as some assume. For instance Motsweding FM and Lesedi FM broadcast in Setswana while Thobela FM broadcasts in Sesotho sa Leboa in South Africa. I am not convinced that crowding all Botswana’s 28 languages onto a single radio station is the way to go – or even the ones with developed orthographies as argued (an awkward prerequisite for radio and television). What I think is a better option is the establishment of community radio stations which will grant sufficient space for minority languages to flourish. This is an area which I believe MPs must focus and explore. Additionally, isn’t about time we pressured private radio stations and newspapers to use minority languages?
The Botswana languages dynamics are fairly well known and they present great challenges. They are documented in many research articles, amongst these Chebanne and Ramahobo’s (2003) paper titled Language use and language knowledge in Botswana which presents some fairly useful statistics. In that article Dr. Chebanne, arguably Botswana’s finest linguist, and Ramahobo, found out from the 2001 census that the following languages were spoken at home by the following percentages: 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, Sekgothu 0.04. What we do not have is ethnic data or tribal data, that is, how many people are Baherero, Bangwaketse, Bakwena, Bakgalagadi, Bakalaka etc. But we do have linguistic statistics. The two researchers also found out that while Setswana, Sesarwa and English have a national spread, other languages only have a regional presence. Such distribution is as follows: Setswana (national); Kalanga (C & NE); Shekhalagari (Kgalagadi S & N), English (national), Sesarwa (national), Mbukushu (Ngami W & E), Sebirwa (Bobonong), Shona (urban), Herero (NW & Central), Ndebele (NE & FT), Afrikaans (Kgalagadi S), Subiya (Chobe), Setswapong (Palapye), Shiyeyi (NW). There is more from the study. The research shows that in different districts, Setswana was spoken by the following percentages: Southern 96.7%, Kweneng 88.5%, Kgatleng 97.7%, South-East 92.1%, Central 79.3%, North-East 37.3%, North-West 58.6%, Ghanzi 19.5%, Kgalagadi 52.7%, Gaborone 79.3%, Francistown 60.8%, Lobatse 91.5%, S/Phikwe 82.9%, Orapa 79.2%, Jwaneng 88.8% and Sowa Town 70.8%. With the exception of the North East/West and Ghanzi/Kgalagadi areas Setswana is spoken by over 70% to 97.7% across the country. The greatest weakness of this study is that the “the census doesn’t capture the other languages that are used at home. For instance, we may be using predominantly Kalanga at home but also using Setswana or English at different times in the house. Many families in Botswana 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?”
It appears we are not making serious progress on the matter of development of minority languages and local languages in general in Botswana. It appears part of the problem arises from the way we try and address this matter. In certain cases, people call for the introduction of early childhood education in local languages. When that is rejected by parliament they try their luck on the use of minority languages in the media. My view is that there is need to develop a comprehensive plan to develop and preserve Botswana’s language as an important national heritage. This obviously requires a mentality shift from government, from perceiving minority languages as a threat to national unity; and for advocates of minority languages from perceiving Setswana as a threat to their languages. The question to pose therefore is: How can we develop and promote all Botswana languages? When we take this route; we are firstly not confrontational; second, we are not locking ourselves onto a single route of language promotion and development. We can therefore think outside the box of how different communities together with government can develop and promote local languages. This could be through teaching, use on radio and television, music, poetry, newsletters, theatre, newspaper publication, use in political campaigns etc.
I believe that all Botswana’s languages need to be developed, especially that many have suffered much neglect. How such development will be, is not clear. However, all Batswana must contribute to strategies of developing and preserving all Botswana languages.