Peer review of paper number 114
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This paper makes an important contribution, arguing that English is assuming a dominant position in South Africa as a public language and that this links to the creation of cultural and political hegemonies in our society. The author firstly gives an insightful exposition of how the global market value of English, and its domination, is portrayed as natural and politically liberating in current liberal discourses. The neo-liberal argument that English is dominant because it gives people access to various products, including political systems and academic concepts, makes perfect sense to many of us in the South African context. The author criticizes this view, highlighting that in South Africa the spread of English has been "as uneven as the spread of the global economy". Hence, he reasons, the dominance of English serves to maintain divisions between a slowly evolving multi-racial elite and the poor, who mainly speak African languages, with devastating effects for the marginal language speakers. He then illustrates from case records in the local context of a South African school some important reflections on how English may be perceived by our youth, including that:
English is presented as globally and nationally shared, for not only financial gain and personal mobility, but also for creating a South African identity and moving away from racial fragmentation;
marginalising other languages is made to look legitimate because it is used to foster racial harmony - English is presented as inclusive.
Speaking an African language can be presented as negatively politicising the school; and
because it has the effect of coming between people and creating misunderstanding, speaking a language in public that others do not understand is no less than racism and racial violence. As is so often the case in contemporary racism, the victim is blamed.
The author thus shows that the construction of English as universal, functions to maintain local links between language, class and race in South Africa. What this paper has indicated to me as a reader and audience participant during the Critical Methods Conference, is that South Africans may be re-inventing an apartheid society by shifting from one that is racist, to one that is classist and English speaking. This paperís value also lies is the fact that, instead of suggesting solutions to the dilemma, it encourages one to reflect on something that (in South Africa) is seldom commented upon. This was evident during the Critical Methods Conference, where participants started talking about how Afrikaans speaking people often refrain from replying in Afrikaans when an English speaking person addresses them in Afrikaans and how they experience the dynamics on an interpersonal level. The effect of Desmondís presentation was that many of us wanted to add our own experiences to what he has opened up. Desmondís paper touches on the tip of an iceberg. The dominance of English and its effects are pervasive and not only confined to public places. I am aware of many African language-speaking parents who speak English with their children at home, and their agony at its devastating effect on their cultural identity. It is high time that South Africans start talking and reflecting about their approach to African languages and English for the sake of their own and their childrenís sanity. Perhaps Desmond could add some suggestions in his conclusion on how to further the debate.
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