I am in my last day in Johannesburg, South Africa, having attended a linguistics conference here for the past week. It’s been a fascinating experience, both attending presentations at the conference and experiencing South Africa for the first time. The language situation in South Africa is complex. There are 11 official languages (versus just 2 in the Apartheid days, English and Afrikaans – derived from Dutch). The fascinating fact for me is that virtually everyone here speaks English, but it is rare that it is anyone’s native tongue. Most likely it is the second language (for white Afrikaans speakers) or the second or third language (for black South Africans). Many South Africans speak more then two languages, especially Blacks, who often speak their home language (such as Xhosa or Sotho) and also English and possibly also one or both of the other two languages which have a lingua franca function here, namely Afrikaans and Zulu. In one presentation today it was mentioned that adult Blacks do not necessarily view their native language as their best language – that might be English or Afrikaans, languages which are vital for success in higher education and in the professional world.
There was a presentation today by a Swiss linguist, who reported on language issues in health care in Switzerland. She started off by mentioning that her country also has multiple official languages (German, French, Italian, Romantsch). At the end of her talk there was a question from a South African in the audience, asking why, if Switzerland were multilingual like South Africa, there was any need for interpreters or other assistance in health care. She was assuming that the situation was analogous to multilingual South Africa, where it’s the norm to speak multiple languages, and, if possible, to learn to speak (although not necessarily to read or write) all the languages used widely in your region. The Swiss linguist was somewhat taken aback by the question and responded that while there are multiple official languages, they are not all spoken throughout the country but rather are limited to particular geographic regions. Many Swiss within those regions speak only their native tongue (and often school English).
Maybe the South Africans learn more languages because they’re more open and approachable. One South African linguist at the conference reported an anecdote of a woman in a township being asked why she was learning an additional African language (her 4th or 5th language) – she responded that it would be rude not to be able to speak to her new neighbor who spoke that language.
Pope Francis & his Ford Focus
Pope Francis today issued his first written document, the Evangelii Gaudium and in it he takes on an issue of concern in many parts of the world, the growing gap between rich and poor. “How can it be”, he writes, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” The Pope’s “apostolic exhortation” is in large part a stinging rebuke of unbridled capitalism, juxtaposing the real lives of the poor with the focus on ever increasing wealth. Pope Francis practices what he preaches, living in a modest guest house rather than in the ornate Apostolic Palace and riding around Rome in a used Ford Focus. Last month he suspended a German bishop who had spent lavishly on remodeling and decorating his residence.
This week-end the Swiss voted on one of their many national voter referendums, this one stipulating that CEO’s could not earn more than 12 times the pay of their lowest-paid employee. The measure did not pass, but that it even came up for a vote in a country that values highly the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates its rich multinational firms is an indication of how wide-spread the concern over the increasing gulf between rich and poor is in many European countries. In fact the Swiss passed a referendum in March that already placed restrictions on CEO pay.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the NY Times pointed out in an article this week-end, the mere mention of “redistribution” is political poison. The article points out that a leading candidate to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Rebecca Blank, had her name withdrawn when it was learned that 10 years earlier she had not only used the word in print but had dared to assert, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system”. A statement in harmony with Pope Francis’s epistle and one that Christians would seem obligated to support, but seemingly so out of step with American popular opinion that not even a Democratic White House could embrace it.
Graphic by the Quebec government showing one example of a banned public dress under a proposed Charter
In the news recently there have been reports on initiatives in various countries to restrict how Muslim women may dress, specifically to ban clothing in public that covers the face. That means outlawing the burqa and the hijab. Most recently, there is a proposed law for Quebec as well as for the Canton of Ticino in Switzerland. Most of the initiatives now and in the past (in France and Belgium, for example) have been made with justifications centered around security (not being able to recognize the identity of someone with her face covered), safety (lack of peripheral vision when driving), or the maintenance of laity (strict separation of church and state, particularly in schools). Xenophobia, particularly towards Muslims, is never mentioned. In some case, parallel movements pretty clearly point in this direction. In Switzerland, for example, a law was passed in 2009 banning the building of minarets, despite the fact that there are very few mosques in the country. The Quebec government’s proposed “Charter of Values,” would prohibit public servants from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols, thus insuring a “religiously neutral state.” Yet, the province’s minister for democratic institutions, Bernard Drainville, told TIME Magazine “Quebec is not a blank page…Building our future shouldn’t come at the expense of our past, our heritage.” What he meant by that statement is clear: Christianity as part of the Quebequois culture will continue to enjoy privileged status.
The promoter of the initiative in Ticino is quite explicit in his goals, according to the Wall Street Journal:
[The law] is being spearheaded by Giorgio Ghiringhelli, a 61-year-old political activist and former journalist. Although burqas are rarely seen in Ticino, where less than 2% of the roughly 340,000 inhabitants identify as Muslim, Mr. Ghiringhelli said his ban could help curb Islamic extremism before it takes root, and would be “a strong signal for Switzerland and maybe for other countries” to follow suit.
Identifying Muslim dress as an indicator of political fanaticism is an attack on Islam as well as a strike against religious freedom. It’s ironic that we in the West often rail against mistreatment of Christians in Muslim countries, yet don’t see that with such initiatives we are just as guilty of intolerance and blind prejudice.