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THE LANGUAGES OF NAMIBIA

Namibia is a country in southern Africa. Namibia gained independence in March 1990. Prior to that, it had been administered by South Africa since 1915 under the name of 'South West Africa', originally by a UN mandate, but that ended in 1966, after which South Africa ruled Namibia as a regular colony. Before South African rule, Namibia was a German colony known as 'Deutsche Südwestafrika' or 'German South West Africa' for 30 years between 1884 and 1915.

Namibia covers an area of 825,000 square kilometres, placing it among the 40 largest countries in the world. It is roughly the same size as Argentina or Turkey, while being more than three times the size of the United Kingdom, and two thirds the size of France.

Namibia

The 2001 Namibia Population and Housing Census counted 1,830,330 people in Namibia. A more recent estimate by the UN, for the year 2006, sets the population at c.2,074,000 people. Thus while being geographically large, Namibia has a population comparable to many smaller countries such as Macedonia (26,000 sq.km), Slovenia (21,000 sq.km), and Lesotho (30,000 sq.km). Hence Namibia ranks only among the ten least densely populated countries in the world, with an average of 2.2 individuals per square kilometre. In Africa, only Western Sahara is less densely populated than Namibia. (The world average is about 45 inviduals per sq.km)

The Namibian administration recognises 13 national languages in Namibia:

  • Afrikaans
  • English (official language)
  • German
  • Herero or Otjiherero
  • Ju/'hoan or !Kung
  • Khoekhoe or Nama/Damara
  • Kwangali or Rukwangali
  • Kwanyama or Oshikwanyama
  • Lozi or Silozi
  • Manyo or Rumanyo (incl. Gciriku and Sambyu)
  • Mbukushu or Thimbukushu
  • Ndonga or Oshindonga
  • Tswana or Setswana

(These, however, are not the only languages spoken in the country. There are in fact several more.)

Namibia's current official language is English. During South African rule, both English and Afrikaans were recognised as official languages. However, the emphasis was on Afrikaans to the extent that it is now the most widely spoken and understood second language in Namibia. In preparation for independence, SWAPO (the current political party that holds power in Namibia) and UNIN (United Nations Institute for Namibia) jointly devised a language policy favouring only English as the official language, which was duly implemented after independence. Today, English is extensively promoted and used in media, education and administration, while its use in people's homes and on the streets is limited, if not minimal, especially outside Windhoek (the capital).

The educational policy allows for and ostensibly promotes mother tongue instruction, meaning that primary education is performed in the child's mother tongue (or rather, one of the recognised national languages), after which the language of instruction changes to English. To what extent the mother tongue policy is and is not carried out throughout the country is an issue that has been debated ever since the policy was formally ratified. The national literacy rate is estimated at 81%, while 80% of all households own or have access to a radio.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jouni F. Maho. 1998. Few people, many tongues: the languages of Namibia. Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan Publ. Pp x+222.

Jouni F. Maho. 2000. The linguistic legacy of the early missionaries in southern Africa. In: Tongues and texts unlimited (Festschrift Tore Janson), p. 143-154. Edited by Hans Aili & Peter af Trampe. Dept of Classics, Stockholm University.

Jouni F. Maho. 200x. NAMLAB: the Namibian languages bibliography. Forthcoming. Pp 400-ish.
  [ simplified web version PDF ]

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