City Press readers always show up for a debate about language and heritage. So, when the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) approached us to partner on its #SpeakItLiveIt mother tongue awareness campaign, we knew just how to do it.

At the time that we started the campaign with PanSALB, South Africa had 11 official languages. One of the elements of the campaign was driving awareness about sign language’s fight for recognition as another one — and it is now the 12th official language.

Though we are an English-language cross-platform news organisation with a flagship Sunday product, the majority of our readers speak other languages as their mother tongue. This knowledge of our readers, coupled with their passion for their heritage, was how we found a novel way of including as many of our official languages as we could in a month-long project.

One of the print features published during the campaign was about the unsung lexicography units that preserve and record the 11 official languages.
One of the print features published during the campaign was about the unsung lexicography units that preserve and record the 11 official languages.

The campaign ran throughout February 2017. In our print edition, we ran features about a range of subjects, reported by our specialist writers, such as a context piece about our constitution and how it recognises that all 11 languages are seen as equal. However, in practice some languages are not treated equally. We advocated for government departments to attend PanSALB  public hearings, and we featured the lexicography units who are the keepers of all our languages.

As part of the all-important engagement element of the project in print and online, we invited our readers to write in or tweet to us with their definitions of words that are new in all our languages.

We asked questions such as:

  • What is “selfie” in your mother tongue?
  • How do you say “texting?”
  • How do you say “state capture,” which is a topical subject in South Africa since the #GuptaLeaks.
An example of the tweets City Press put out to encourage readers to respond.
An example of the tweets City Press put out to encourage readers to respond.

Our readers participated with the passion we expected from them. On February 21, International Mother Language Day, PanSALB hosted its main event, and we put together a multi-lingual social media campaign to support it.

As Media24 is also home to the largest collection of Afrikaans journalists, we invited colleagues at our sister Sunday publication, Rapport, to be our partners for the day. We also asked News24’s isiZulu site editor to join us. In the City Press newsroom, our journalists speak almost all of the other official languages, so we rounded up isiXhosa speakers, TshiVenda speakers, and Sesotho speakers, among others.

Boasting an army of languages, we attended the event and translated our live reporting into six of the 11 official languages. While we used Rapport and News24 isiZulu’s Twitter accounts, we did all the rest through our City Press Twitter account. One of us tweeted in English, and then the team back in the newsroom would translate those tweets into their home languages and retweet.

To supplement our live tweeting, we also prepared a pre-event campaign. We did polls and asked readers additional questions about their languages. We invited them to respond in their mother tongues, then we translated their answers and retweeted them.

The campaign trended on Twitter for three hours on International Mother Language Day.
The campaign trended on Twitter for three hours on International Mother Language Day.

For three hours on the morning of the event PanSALB’s hashtag #SpeakItLiveIt trended on Twitter in many of our official languages.

PanSALB was pleased with the campaign. “For the first time in its history, PanSALB received 299 mentions in the media as a result of this project. The hashtag #SpeakItLiveIt trended for nearly three hours and City Press readers engaged with the event vigorously.”

The project and partnership were regarded as a spectacular success.