By: Enoch Sithole
Journalism educators from Mauritius, Ghana and South Africa concur that while media audiences in most African countries consume media content in indigenous languages, teaching in these languages is in short supply.

(From left) Dr Modestus Fosu, Christina Chan Meetoo and Dr Sisanda Nkoala

The subject of language and decoloniality in journalism education was one of the subjects that was extensively discussed at the African Journalism Educators Network (AJEN) round table, which was held recently at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Kick-starting the discussions on the subject was University of Mauritius’ Christina Chan Meetoo, who explained the context of the language issue in her country: “The Republic of Mauritius has known two major colonisations. For almost one century by the French and for a century and half by the British, with massive imports of slaves from the mainland continent and Madagascar as well as indentured labourers from India.” 

As a result, she added, the country is a multilingual “melting pot”. Since independence in 1968, the colonisers’ languages, French and English, have been perceived as being more prestigious. “French for the corporate world, the literati, and the media; English for public administration and the education system. Creole, which is the lingua franca and mother tongue of most Mauritians, would be frowned upon in (government) institutions, academia, and the media,” said Meetoo. 

When it comes to media content, mainstream newspapers and peak time news bulletins on radio and television, published or broadcast in French, while popular live radio talk-shows tended to be in Creole, especially for phone-in programmes. “Similarly, interviewees often speak in Creole but commentary by the journalists in the same news report would be in French. This has created a paradoxical situation where the masses prefer to use the Creole language for comprehension and for interaction, whereas the media tends to stick to French for the ‘journalistic voice’,” added Meetoo.

Since the 2000s, there have been numerous scholarly endeavours for the recognition of the Creole language, such as the publication of a monolingual dictionary, an official orthography and grammar adopted by the state. Creole was also introduced as a school subject at university level, primary and secondary schools. In 2021-2022, journalism academics successfully introduced a module at the University of Mauritius’ journalism, which entailed reading and writing in Creole. The programme proved to be very popular, said Meetoo. 

Despite some stumbling blocks, the media are being awakened to the value of the mother tongue as a medium of communication for informing the masses more effectively, Meetoo remarked. The university recently completed a short course for media and communication professionals to help them work in the Creole language. 

For Meetoo, “one key message that still needs to be honed in is that we should not operate in a zero-sum game configuration. The objective is not to remove English and French, altogether, from our linguistic landscape. Rather, Creole needs to be considered as an addition to our portfolio of languages which we should be able to formally, on an equal footing with the former colonisers’ languages. 

“We should stop considering our own language as inferior and instead nurture its development and treasure it as part of our unique national identity. There is no doubt that language policy with respect to journalism education is part of decoloniality”.

Discussing Ghana’s case when it comes to the usage of language in the media and communication, Dr Modestus Fosu of the Ghana Institute of Journalism, said Ghana had more than 70 indigenous languages, but English remained the country’s sole official language, although it cannot be written and read by a significant number of the population. 

“English has assumed a hegemonic position in Ghana, where it is used in all the official and prestigious places in the country,” he said. For example, there are almost 100 newspapers in the country, all of them publish in English. 

However, he said, the broadcast media scene is “replete” with indigenous language outlets. The nearly 450 radio stations either solely broadcast in a local language or impact in a local language, he added.

“This shows the popularity of indigenous language media in Ghana, and I think it’s the same in other African countries. In fact, research has shown that Ghanaians are generally happy listening to news and getting other information in their own language,” said Dr Fosu.

However, none of the country’s many universities that offer journalism and other communication programmes teach in indigenous languages. “This is significant because almost 80% of the radio stations broadcast in local languages, yet in teaching, there is no curriculum for the local languages. Therefore, it seems to imply, obviously, that academia has not kept pace with the trends because indigenous language media is the one that is preferred by the public (yet it’s not taught in universities),” he argued. 

Discussing the case of South Africa, Dr Sisanda Nkoala of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology said, as a former journalist, she had noted that  even though the majority of South Africans do not speak English as their first language, the media largely used English, thus creating a “disconnect” with audiences. “We have 11 official languages, on paper, because in high status contexts, like newsrooms, like academia, like courts, the priority really is to English and Afrikaans. And our media industry reflects this because most of the outlets are in English and Afrikaans,” said Dr Nkoala. Most funding is devoted to English and Afrikaans publications, even though indigenous language outlets, by size of audiences, often have much larger audiences, she said. 

“I would say that our curriculum certainly reflects the sector but not necessarily the audience that it speaks to. The curriculum, in terms of journalism teaching, should reflect this,” said Dr Nkoala.