Swazis set to lose their tongue

Educationists are concerned about the future of the Swazi language as the school examination pass rate in SiSwati as a subject continues to fall.

"If the 2005 Junior Certificate examination results are any yardstick, then the SiSwati language is gradually being eroded," opined the Times of Swaziland when it reported this week that nearly a quarter of the students sitting the exam had failed the test.

In contrast, 92 percent of students taking the crucial exams in 2005 passed English - a total of 10,235 students, up from 9,159 who succeeded in 2004. English is a "must pass" subject, while SiSwati is not. But this was not the reason for declining performance in SiSwati, educationalists told IRIN.

"Most teachers do not wish to teach SiSwati because it is difficult. The speaking and comprehension aspect is no problem, because SiSwati is the students' language, but grammar and written SiSwati is difficult," said Simangele Mmema, head teacher at Mangwaneni Primary School in the capital, Mbabane.

The time devoted to teaching English, a second language at Mmema's school, is double that spent on SiSwati: 15 class periods to eight.

"Historically, students were never permitted to speak their language in schools. During colonial times, students were not even allowed to use their Swazi names - they were given English names ... That has changed ... more SiSwati is spoken in schools, but it has not improved language skills, as reflected in the test results," said Thandi Gama, a secondary school teacher in Mbabane.

For decades school textbooks were printed in IsiZulu, the language of the large Zulu ethnic group in neighbouring eastern South Africa, which is similar to SiSwati. However, IsiZulu has been phased out since the 1970s and textbooks are now printed in SiSwati, but few other books are published in the local language.

Mmema pointed out that SiSwati had failed to evolve and grow. The language, unlike Xhosa and Zulu in neighbouring South Africa has failed to modernise itself. For the lack of a single term in SiSwati, Swazis often settle for "iAids" to refer to the disease rather than use "umcamulajuca", meaning "the thing that cuts you down completely". Similarly, "icomputer", is more common than the SiSwati description, "umcondvemshini", meaning "the machine that thinks".