Language and Diversity in South Arica

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I often think of America as a very diverse country. It is, in fact, a country of immigrants that is home to countless ethnic and religious groups, many of whom place a great deal of emphasis on preserving their own unique cultural values and passing them on from generation to generation. But America is also a highly developed and modernized country, and more and more it seems that every single citizen, no matter their particular background, is decidedly American. South Africa seems to have a decidedly different form of diversity. The film Yesterday gave us a brief look at just how different the big city life of Johanessburg and other metropolises are from the disconnected, rural village life that Yesterday and her family lived. I won’t assert any absolutes, but I certainly think that you would be hard pressed to find any place in the United States with living conditions comparable to the village in the film.

Known as “The Rainbow Nation,” South Africa’s constitution recognizes 11 official languages that are guaranteed equal status by the state.Those languages are English, Afrikaans, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. Still, dozens more languages and dialects are spoken throughout the country.

While English is understood by most and accepted as the language of business, politics and media, it is only the fifth most commonly used language within households. While it can be expected that most people in metropolitan areas will at least be conversational in English, only about 45% of the overall population has a speaking knowledge of it. The prevalence of each language varies widely from province to province so much that they could easily be considered different countries altogether. The various languages of South Africa have also had noticeable effects on one another within the country. It is not uncommon for Afrikaans speakers to throw English words into their conversations and vice versa.

The vast diversity of South Africa is fascinating and admirable, but in many cases it can also manifest itself in bad ways. Again, South Africa lacks the inter-connectedness of America. Many of the rural villages such as the one in the film Yesterday have never had contact with outsiders. Thus, they may not have been exposed to other skin colors, ethnicities, religions, and cultural values.

Depending on your particular ethnicity, skin color, religious affiliation, etc, you may find yourself inexplicably awarded privileges in one community and discriminated against in another. Skin color, in particular, remains a common divider due to the legacy of apartheid. The relative isolation of many rural areas and provinces from the big city culture certainly allows for a level of cultural diversity that many here in America would admire. However, with cultural pride often comes ethnocentrism and the era of apartheid is a far too recent part of South Africa’s history to deny the continuing challenges that face the Rainbow Nation.

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