Language, Heritage, and Heritage Languages

This Heritage month, Folio takes a look at issues of language, heritage, and heritage languages.

Language is a fundamental part of cultural heritage. That’s a given. Even when overlooking subcategories such as linguistic heritage, the languages we speak are some of the primary building blocks that make us who we are and indicate where we come from, both geographically and socio-culturally.

Of course, intergenerational shifts of language and culture are nothing new. Our world is increasingly interconnected, and the upward social movement of migration and urbanisation often expects us to leave a bit of the old world behind in the name of progress. Even in as diverse a country as South Africa, where we dedicate an entire month to our rich Heritage, there is a staggering number of families following the trend of raising children in dominant languages in order for them to have access to better opportunities later in life

In some cases – when the child is taught a dominant language as well as their parents’ mother tongue – the younger generation has the advantage of becoming increasingly bilingual and multilingual. On the downside, however, are the instances where children are raised without any exposure to their parents’ mother tongues – resulting in homogenisation and the demise of linguistic heritage. Plainly put, children are raised in homes where they are intentionally cut off from their linguistic heritage for the sake of social mobility. While this comes with its own advantages, such as greater opportunities and socio-economic upliftment, defaulting towards monolingualism in this way may broaden one horizon at the expense of another.

It is a well-known fact that South Africa boasts 11 official languages, and a plethora of unofficial ones to boot. The USA, on the other hand, has a far more diverse population of speakers than we realise, but is not nearly as outspoken about it. Uncle Sam may have studied Spanish in high school, but he flunked it. In contrast to South Africa which wears its linguistic heritage as a badge of honour – though more so on paper than anywhere else – America can hardly spare the lip service, reducing its own linguistic diversity to two main categories, namely: English and LOTEs, or “languages other than English”.

This brings us to the lexical item of the day – heritage languages. Painted with broad strokes, these are languages which are technically the speaker’s mother tongue, but that play second fiddle to the language which the speaker uses more frequently and sometimes with greater ease. Furthermore, heritage languages tend to lack status and have minimal representation in areas such as instruction and bureaucracy. That is, while carrying the bulk of the speaker’s history and heritage, these languages are regarded as secondary in the face of linguistic titans. Sound familiar?

In the USA and Canada, the Venn diagram for LOTEs and heritage languages form concentric circles. And while the use of lingua francas is essential in multicultural and multilingual environments, overuse poses a threat towards heritage languages, which, by extension, encroaches upon cultural heritage and linguistic diversity. While this is not yet a foregone conclusion in South Africa, there is certainly a risk of some of our languages being left in the dust in favour of those which have long been afforded prominence.

The tone of this blog may seem incongruously sombre for a time when South African citizens should be celebrating our cultural origins. Perhaps it is necessary, however, to approach the issue with a certain degree of austerity and make efforts to commemorate our heritage in a less superficial manner. It is of vital importance that we acknowledge where we come from – linguistically as well as in every other sense.

We need to encourage the recognition and use of non-dominant languages to keep the bridges of discourse open between generations. We owe our diversity more than false reverence, as it is one of our most valuable assets.

We must conserve our mother tongues before our linguistic heritage becomes nothing more than footnotes in the annals of history.