Uncovering the complicated politics of race and belonging underlying the use of English as a lingua franca in South Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Stephanie Rudwick

12 May 2020

“The ways in which South Africans speak English is highly loaded in terms of identity politics. It’s certainly not just English that creates marginalisation – any language can – but in South Africa English is a unique lingua franca. It is seen as the language of advancement, of socio-economic power and of academia,” said STIAS fellow Stephanie Rudwick of the Department of Political Science at the University of Hradec Králové.

STIAS Fellow Stephanie Rudwick presented her webinar on 7 May 2020

“Yet English is not the most widely spoken language – the statistics disprove this. English is fourth on the list at just under 10% preceded by isiZulu at about 23%, isiXhosa and Afrikaans.”

“The vast majority of African households have an African language as mother tongue,” she continued. “There was only an increase of about 2.5% of English home language being spoken in African households between the 1996 and 2011 censuses. However, the basis of these households remains multilingualism.”

Rudwick is working on a book contracted with Routledge that will focus on the ambiguities of English as a lingua franca in South Africa. The study will engage with various conceptualisations of the cultural politics of English.

“Grounded in linguistic anthropology, I will discuss how power dynamics manifest in South African English lingua franca practices through an analysis of local language ideologies in historical space and context. Racialisation processes and identity politics will feature prominently.”

She explained that World Englishes emerged as part of the applied or sociolinguistics research field in the mid-1980s. The study of the use of English as lingua franca (ELF) was only established as a sub-branch in the early 2000s and since then, has produced various corpuses, conferences, and, most recently, a Routledge Handbook. There is also the established Journal of English as a Lingua Franca (JELF).

“But,” she pointed out, “this field has, to date, been largely Eurocentric and race has been neglected as an analytical category. I take a different approach to study English as a lingua franca by engaging with the politics of language and by providing a raciolinguistic lens – a focus on the intersection between ways of speaking and racialisation processes.”

Rudwick’s monograph aims to discuss the African buzz of translingual Englishes through a nuanced ethnographic account of the sociocultural ambiguity of English as lingua franca in South Africa and how this is “reflected by conflict and consensus, hegemony and marginalisation, and a complex range of local, global and glocal identity trajectories”.

“Although there has been excellent work on the different varieties of English spoken in the country, I’m specifically looking at social dynamics and identity politics in the context of English lingua franca communication. It’s about the interactions between speakers and the various realities these create for individuals.”

In her presentation she focused on the chapter on the entanglement between marginalisation and empowerment, and “the complicated ways in which advantage and disadvantage entwine”.

Rudwick pointed to examples from parliamentary debates (ranging from arguments over lack of adequate mother-tongue translations to admonishments from one MP to another to “Speak English like an African”), to examples from colleagues’ flat-hunting experiences of being included or excluded on the basis of accent and suppositions about race.

“There are many faces of marginalisation,” she said.

“English and race intersect very specifically in South Africa,” she continued. “The kind of English spoken brings inclusion or exclusion. The so-called model-C accent (a result of model-C schooling) is seen as desirable standard English in many spaces, especially academic ones. Increased access to standard English is very much part of the process of de-racialisation, however, the opposite also exists – people experience increased racialisation because they don’t have the ‘right’ accent in a particular space.”

Adjusting the way you speak English according to your audience can also backfire. As an example Rudwick pointed to former opposition leader Mmusi Maimane who was often criticised for changing his accent depending on the audience – “this worked against him, making him appear inauthentic”.

“From an African perspective – model-C accents are also contested. In some spaces, one might run the risk of being regarded a ’sell-out’, betraying one’s roots. However, many still aspire to standard English – it’s about who people are and how they want to be perceived.”

The perspectives of Afrikaans speakers and Afrikaners in particular, will also feature strongly in her book.

Debating decolonisation in English

She also pointed to interesting ironies where, for example, the AfriKaaps movement (which emerged as multi-media protest theatre highlighting the vernacular Afrikaans mainly spoken by Coloured people in the Cape) often expresses commitment to AfriKaaps using English, such as the RIP Kaaps poem publicised by Vannie Kaap.

Similarly, issues in the Fallist movement and decolonisation debates are usually expressed using English. “The debate is conducted primarily in English.”

But she also pointed to some disruptions. “At UKZN there is a strong promotion of isiZulu.”

Also certain Ministers of Parliament have made it a consistent point to speak in their first language and not English. In the recent COVID-19 briefing of the ministers of Basic and Higher Education several switches into the vernacular took place.

In the discussion, she touched on the broader issue of multilingualism and the experience that children may have of using English at school and other languages at home.

“I don’t believe it’s a crisis,’ she said. “Children grow up quite easily bilingual. If the parents are not comfortable in English they shouldn’t force themselves to speak it. English is, in any way, more likely to become dominant as the influence of peers overrules parents. But it’s a transition humans are fully capable of making. We are moving away from language as a bound notion.”

She also emphasised that a lingua franca is not always created through power relations – there are different histories. It may just be a common medium of communication between people of different mother tongues.  For example, isiZulu plays a major lingua franca role in Gauteng especially among the working class.

She added that a language can also become lingua franca for practical reasons because it is seen as more accessible, fluid and adaptable. She acknowledged though that languages are still sometimes forced on people – current examples include forcing migrants to learn European languages.

“There is increasing challenge to English as the primary lingua franca in many South African spaces. People use English in very creative and innovative ways, and the link to the so-called ‘standard’ language might become blurred. There are translingual practices which also express identity politics. Since the Fallist movements and further engagement with decolonisation, there are also language perspectives which question the dominant roles of English. Speaking languages other than English in a traditional or conventional English lingua franca space can be an act of reclamation – and it seems to me – these acts are having increasing momentum in contemporary South Africa.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

STIAS is a creative space for the mind.