There are 29 languages listed in Botswana, all of which are living languages (Lewis, et al, 2013). English is the official language and Setswana is the national language. Setswana is the mother tongue of approximately 80% of the population and is the second language of an additional 10% (Nyati-Ramahobo, as cited in Adeyemi, (2008)), making it the national lingua franca. However, there is disagreement as to whether Setswana is one language, or a “language complex”. As described by Baldauf and Kaplan (2004), “the 8 major tribes use 8 mutually-intelligible varieties of Setswana. In addition, there are 11 other tribes that speak varieties close to Setswana and 8 tribes that speak languages unrelated to Setswana” (p. 9). This dominance of the Setswana language, therefore, is viewed by some not as a “dominance by numbers”, but rather as a minority that has “successfully imposed its culture on the majority population of the extreme diverse origins” (Parsons, 1985, as cited in ibid). Indeed, as Nyati-Ramahobo (2004) emphasizes, “the terms minority and majority [in speaking of tribes] have, by definition, no numerical significance in Botswana. What determines whether a tribe is major or minor is whether it belongs to one of the eight Setswana tribes and speaks one of the eight Setswana dialects” (p.31). This power dynamic has caused agitation amongst non-Setswana speaking groups.
According to Nyati-Ramahobo (2004), “Botswana’s language education policy is not written; it is understood, inferred and observed from reality” (p. 52). Documents such as the national constitution merely allude to language policy, but stop short of fully declaring a position. English, therefore, was merely “indirectly declared the official language through the constitution” (ibid, emphasis mine). Despite the lack of formal promotion, English remains the language of governance and education.
However, Setswana, as described above, holds a powerful place in language planning initiatives. Of the 29 languages spoken in Botswana, Setswana is the medium of instruction for the first two years of primary education. In the third year, the language of instruction switches to English, which is used for the remainder of a child’s schooling. Setswana is also taught as a separate subject throughout a child’s schooling (including the two years for which it is the medium of instruction). Only English and Setswana are permitted in the school system (Mooko, 2008 as cited in Adeyemi, p. 24).
Efforts to include other languages in the education system have largely been ignored and not implemented.In 2002, various linguistic organizations formed a coalition called “RETENG: The Multicultural Coalition of Botswana”. This coalition has been very active in not only promoting the issue of indigenous language inclusion, but also in working with the government in trying to enact reforms. They are also involved in developing multilingual materials with the goal of developing some of Botswana’s unwritten languages.