Daunting task in crafting San language syllabus

TSORO-O-TSO San Development Trust that is seized with uplifting the San community in Zimbabwe is currently faced with an array of challenges in crafting the Tshwao language syllabus amid indications that no one can approve its drafting as most of the country’s intellectuals are ignorant of the language clicks and its morphology.


The organisation’s director Davy Ndlovu yesterday said since the Khoisan language had been endorsed in the new Constitution as one of the local languages in the country, they had been asked by the Zimbabwe Indigenous languages Promotion Association to craft the Tshwao language to enable the San to use it as a medium of learning.

“But there is a serious problem and challenges we are facing in this language syllabus formulation. There is currently no written form of this language as it is at a developmental stage here in Zimbabwe. As a community, we have decided to write the language as we speak it on daily basis,” said Ndlovu.

“The Tshwao vocabulary is limited to the San’s lives in the bush then. There are a lot of new things which have no reference in the Tshwao language and so we have to form new words to refer to those things.”

He said that meant they would have to borrow some words from other local languages such as Ndebele and Kalanga.

“These people had no material possession so counting systems never existed for them. They did not have cattle or any other livestock; they could only count up to three and they also had no time. They measured time by bees when they come out, when trees bloom and when the rainy season started.”

Ndlovu said because of challenges and limitations they were facing in the language formulation, they were appealing to the Education ministry to facilitate learning visits to other countries where San people are found such as in Botswana and Namibia.

“We are saying if the Primary and Secondary Education ministry can facilitate for a number of officials to visit Botswana to learn how they have handled language learning and cultural conservation of these people, it would help in coming up with a proper syllabus for their language.

“We understand that the Khoisan language differs by nation, but share a lot of common words and it would be wise for us to learn other new words in the language from them than to borrow words from other totally different languages,” Ndlovu said.

He said his organisation was also appealing to the government to provide capacity building and workshops for them to brainstorm on how they should deal with the syllabus.

In part of Grade 1 and 2 syllabuses which Ndlovu’s organisation has started crafting, they explain that Tshwao is a Khoisan language of the Khoekhoe family that comprises five vowels, two or more tones, palatal clicks, dental clicks, alveolar clicks and affricated clicks.

They indicate that the Tshwao language is one of the many ancient undocumented languages and is spoken by the Tshara-Tshwao people of Zimbabwe currently found in Tsholotsho and Plumtree rural areas. The language has a complex sound system and a number of tones comprising “low, medium and high” tones.

“The Tshwao language has lost some of its click phonemes, but retained the use of dental clicks, palatal click, alveolar clicks and affricated clicks,” reads the syllabus. “Nothing much can be said about this language at this point as it is still under development.

Currently there is no orthography and phonology for Tshwao and we are therefore using the Ndebele phonology.

“Since there is no official agreed writing system for this language at this point, most of the language documentation and production of language training material is based on sound/voice recording, production of word list and oral learning and teaching methods. The Tshwao language has left no written records and is currently not passed from one generation to the next.”

The crafted syllabus states that vocabulary of Tshwao is a reflection of their lifestyles. Since the speakers of this language used to live in close contact with nature, they have a very refined vocabulary related to hunting, animals, plants, and various types of terrain.

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