South Africa’s twelfth official language

Sign language has become South Africa’s twelfth official language. PHOTO: UFS

South Africa has a plethora of officially recognised languages, with many in the nation never even experiencing the vast majority of these. The country’s newly adopted twelfth official language is one that most have experienced, whether they understand it or not.

After the announcement that South African Sign Language (SASL) would be accepted as the country’s twelfth official language, many have pondered how it would be integrated into day-to-day activities, and what this decision really means.

Prof. Theodorus du Plessis, from the University of the Free State (UFS), believes there is a way to practically implement the language, but also notes that there will be barriers. “The added challenge with our sign language is that the public associate it with a disability,” he explained, “generally South Africans battle with overcoming their presuppositions regarding this matter.” Besides the current stigma that SASL is only for the deaf, there is a lack of educational compassion towards the language.

“Ironically, foreign languages like Mandarin and Swahili are taught as additional languages in mainstream schools but SASL, which has been an official language in schools since 1996, not yet. We thus need a huge shift in thinking to take place regarding the role of SASL in education,” Prof. Du Plessis said. In terms of making SASL more inclusive and the country more accessible, Prof. Du Plessis believes that the language will have to be accepted and respected by all.

“One of the primary mechanisms of promoting inclusivity is through learning the others’ language,” he explained, and added, “We as South Africans are supposed to do it with the current official languages – we now need to add SASL to the fray”.

The decision to add SASL to South Africa’s official languages did come as a welcome surprise, as the process that culminated in this eventual decision had already started in 1994, when the SA National Council of the Deaf called for such recognition and interacted with the Constitutional Assembly regarding the matter.

While this a step in the right direction, Prof. Du Plessis has his reservations about the impact of the decision. “One would think that there will be a positive impact but I am afraid not a lot will change,” he said, “We need to liberate the language from this exclusive environment and bring it into the public”.

Warren Hawkins