Multilingualism and citizenship in South Africa

Author: Alice Leal (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Speaker: Alice Leal
Topic: Linguistic Landscapes
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


“Having specialised in patterns of (linguistic) belonging and citizenship in South America (Brazil, my home country) and Europe (Austria, where I did my PhD, Habilitation and worked for 15 years), I now turn to South Africa to understand how the country’s de jure and de facto multilingualism impact its citizens’ sense of belonging under the guise of the construct of “”citizenship””.

It well known and well documented that European countries are pervaded by a “”one-nation-one-language””-mentality, a direct consequence of the continent’s nation-building efforts in the wake of the French revolution. Generalising somewhat, this resulted in most countries being associated with a single language, which often also names the country – French-France, German-Germany, Italy-Italian, Lithuanian-Lithuanian, Polish-Poland, etc. And even in those de jure multilingual nations, such as Switzerland and Belgium, the territoriality principle ensures that sections of the country remain associated with a particular language, which means that the pattern of monolingual identification remains, albeit at a subnational level. This national or subnational identification pattern through language culminates in these countries’ notorious citizenship exams, which assess knowledge of history and culture and especially language to determine which applicants are worthy of citizenship.

This “”one-nation-one-language””-mentality was imposed across the globe through colonisation, though with different levels of success. In South America, for instance, where the vast majority of the continent’s thousands of indigenous languages were decimated by the mais colonisers, i.e. the Spanish and Portuguese, this trend has taken root, though to a lesser extent than in Europe – presumably because the hegemonic languages there remain colonial languages, so the sense of belonging through language remains ambivalent.

Yet in South Africa (and widely speaking, in Africa) multilingualism remained and remains pervasive through processes of colonisation and decolonisation, giving rise to unique patterns of citizenship and belonging through language. This talk draws on an ongoing project I run at Wits University entitled “”Multilingualism and citizenship””, which seeks to scrutinise and understand the multilingual ties that construct South African citizenship. It draws together multidisciplinary threads from anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, philosophy of language, translation studies and political theory to illuminate the unique patterns of citizenship and belonging through language in the country.

Keywords: multilingualism, citizenship, linguistic belonging