Background and status
At 2% of the population, isiNdebele speakers make up the smallest official language group in South Africa. isiNdebele can be separated into two chief dialects: Southern Ndebele and Northern Ndebele. These should not be confused with the Ndebele speaking groups of Zimbabwe or Botswana, who speak a different language with the same name.
Most of the people who speak Southern Ndebele are situated in and around the Limpopo Province. This dialect of the language is generally only spoken amongst people of the Ndebele culture and it is not taught at schools and as a result, it is dwindling in numbers. Many of the young children of the Southern Ndebele speak Sepedi because it is said to be a lot more adaptable and useful than any other. The provinces of Mpumalanga and Gauteng are home to majority of the Northern Ndebele people.
Ndebele was not always considered to be an important, or even necessary, language. Therefore, little ones were taught to speak isiZulu and Northern Ndebele instead, as it was more common than traditional Ndebele. Ndebele families were very different from the Zulu communities, and this motivated the Apartheid regime to keep them separate. All of these factors contributed to its being an isolated, relatively unknown language and culture.
Growth and use
As a written medium isiNdebele is one of the youngest indigenous languages in South Africa. The language has a very small literature, most of which dates from 1984. The most significant literary work is the Bible, which was translated in 1986. There are no isiNdebele newspapers.
The functional development of the language is proving rather difficult. Education poses particular problems. Until recently isiNdebele speakers tended to learn isiZulu at school. Although the language is now taught as a subject at both primary and secondary level, it is only used as a medium of instruction from grade 1 to grade 3.
As a very small language, the development of isiNdebele faces particular economic difficulties. The heartlands of the language are situated in predominantly rural regions. High unemployment means that many young Ndebele speakers are compelled to move to towns and cities in order to find work. Here they invariably come into contact with speakers of other languages – including closely related languages such as isiZulu, which they understand and often adapt to.