The unsung champions of a mother tongue


By Karien Brits and Sarita Blignaut

Language practitioners are champions who stay language fit and equip others to use their mother tongue with confidence. They equip themselves daily to offer native speakers the best possible texts.

A language practitioner is the person who will lie awake at night wondering what the right word would be to convey the meaning of, for example, an English word. They want to convey to their readers the same feeling that the source language writer had in mind.

Language practice work is therefore not just a random exercise where language practitioners are guided by what looks and sounds good. According to Wannie Carstens in his famous book Norms for Afrikaans, language practitioners are frequently confronted with normative issues. Language norms are not only about what is right or wrong, but also about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Language practitioners must use these rules to motivate their choices. As languages ​​change, so do the prescriptions and therefore they must keep abreast of the prevailing norms.

Language practitioners are busy with applied linguistics and they want to find practical solutions to language problems. Their colleagues, the descriptive linguists, are not concerned with language rules, but they are interested in how language is used. Normative linguists tend towards the prescriptive in how language should to be used while descriptive linguists describe how language is used. There is an interaction between these approaches and therefore a language practitioner is also a lifelong learner.

Just as rules and laws are important for good order and a safe society, language norms are also important for safe and good communication. According to Carstens, the knowledge of language norms is important for intergroup relations and it also provides insight into the social functioning of a community.

Norms are therefore important for healthy communication so that people from all over the world can understand each other. This means that a common language (or standard language) is used so that the speakers of different dialects can understand each other.

Another important matter is terminology and this also often leaves language practitioners scratching their heads. Terminology forms a core part of a language practitioner’s work. That is why it is so important that each mother tongue has a rich collection of terminology. This means that the right word is used in the right place to convey the message as clearly as possible.

Dictionaries and language guides are a language practitioner’s best friend and you will usually find them with their noses in a book or on an online reference source. In truth, language practitioners are curious creatures who read almost anything they can lay their hands on, and in this way they also expand their own vocabulary.

Use Mother Language Month to thank the language practitioner in your life, because behind every word they use lies hours of hard language work.

  • Karien Brits and Sarita Blignaut are language practitioners at Akademia.