Director Language Service, SANDF



The recent monumental changes in the Republic of South Africa, welcomed and applauded throughout the world, are a symptom of the times we live in. When conflicts deminish and the role of a force is reduced to normal peace-time activities the accepted international solution, also adopted in the RSA, is the maintenance of both a relatively small full-time force for short-term contingencies and an extensive reserve force which may be called upon to deal with larger contigencies or emergencies on a part-time basis.


With the need for the integration of five former statutory forces, and at least two former non-statutory forces, aspects such as bridging-training for those members less qualified (including literacy, basic English and numeracy training) and affirmative action to open up employment and promotion opportunities to those who qualify for these, are very real challenges. Affirmative action refers to equal opportunities: the application of fair and equal treatment and equality of opportunities with respect to all members of the military establishment through effective leadership and management. Affirmative action is widely interpreted as the active development of members in order to overcome the effects of past discrimination by appropriate assistance to such complete on an disadvantaged individuals to enable them to equal basis with other members of the force. In this process the role of language proficiency, and especially English proficiency, is cardinal not only as a way to improve communication and hence productivity in the SANDF but also as a way to assist in the education and upliftment of many citizens as part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).


Over the past years the Language Service of the SANDF, in the light of national language development and changed military requirements, developed a flexible language plan, laying the foundations of a revised NDF language policy, now promulgated as NDFO 40/94. This policy, broadly based on Section 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, (Act 200/1993) states:

“It is the policy of the National Defence Force that its members, who represent different cultures and languages, shall communicate effectively and, to this end, the National Defence Force undertakes its activities according to regional and central requirements in the official languages of the Republic of South Africa, as laid down in the Constitution, and maintains a capability in all other languages that may be operationally required.”


When selecting the official language medium to be employed for the purposes of command, control, management and training, the following criteria are applied:

1.3.1 Applicability: The languages best understood by the majority of a target group.

1.3.2 Effectiveness:When the minority language groups of the target population do not adequately understand the official language selected, they shall be communicated with in an official language they understand adequately for the purpose concerned.

1.3.3 The final test is whether all who must understand the communication, actually do so”.


The criteria are an elaboration of the principles contained in the Constitution where “language of choice” is qualified by the words: “Where this is reasonably practicable” (Sect 33) and “whenever practicable” (Section 3(3) and 3(6)) and the words: “the non-diminution of rights relating to languages and the status of languages existing at the commencement of the constitution” Sec 3(9)(a)–(b).


For practical purposes Defence Headquarters may issue instructions and orders for headquarters’ use in English and Afrikaans because these are the languages understood best and used by the majority of headquarters’ personnel. But at unit and regional headquarters any of the eleven languages selected will be used. It must not be forgotten that the NDF is broadly representative of the RSA population and that, for instance, Tswanas do not necessarily communicate in Zulu or Sotho. Hence, the two languages of record, as is also the case in other departments of State such as Justice.

1.6 Language Service

The language plan laid the foundations for the revised SANDF Language Policy which can be effectively implemented with a limited personnel establishment both centrally and at command level. Key personnel members of the Service were trained in African languages whilst the 28% improvement in language proficiency, achieved amongst SADF members the previous year, was maintained by way of the issue and distribution of the Conventions of Military Writing, three new manuals for English and Afrikaans language use, basic military terminologies in training, important interpreting assignments in several languages, and the publication and updating of new Military Dictionary containing terms and definitions of most military terms.

By way of its efforts in the field of military name provision which have already produced more than six publications, its articles in Militaria and other publications, as well as congresses, lectures and briefings, the Language Service over the part year also made a substantial contribution to the promotion of a strong military culture.

A Basic Military Dictionary of Definitions has now also been published utilising the principle of defining complex military concepts in the easiest of everyday language. This dictionary is being used in training and the training effort is being supported on a monthly basis by way of “test your language” type of contributions in the major military disciplines such as infantry, artillery, medical and technological fields, labour relations, financial terminology, tactics and strategy, etc.


English maintains a very high profile both internationally and in the NDF. It is, therefore, clear that aspects meriting special attention in the NDF are the following:

  1. Literacy teaching to adults.
  2. Language bridging and preparatory course.
  3. English as a second language at different levels of education.
  4. English for special purposes.
  5. English military terminology.
  6. Service Writing Conventions.
  7. Translating and interpreting of various languages into English.
  8. Proficiency testing of English.
  9. English language usage manuals.
  10. Editing and language advice.
  11. The Military Naming Function.


The Language Directorate of the Defence Force has for many years been involved in adult education via schools and centres at units (operational and elsewhere). In addition to literacy classes presenting literacy courses or the inclusion of a literacy module in instructors courses for NDF members—many courses also include numeracy components. A good example of successful literacy training given by the Defence Force was that conducted for Bushmen at the Omega camp. Although no longer done within operational context, this capability could be exploited by units in updating programmes for the local communities and families of serving members. Literacy gives access to knowledge and this in turn empowers the individual leading to greater social and labour stability, a reduction in the level of violence and increased attention to education—all positive elements of the RDP.

2.1 Language Bridging and Preparation Courses

In order to prepare soldiers for the skills and language proficiency required in their jobs and also to overcome lack of interethnic communication and cultural antagonism owing to ignorance, and to supplement methods to impart verbal skills, overcome lack of multilingual skills (our country has 11 languages), and counter functional illiteracy, the NDF is preparing verbal skills seminars to its members. This leads to better communication skills for family and community. The enhanced power of expression improves communication and understanding and promotes rational thinking. A rational individual is more likely to exhibit normally acceptable behaviour.

These verbal skills seminars are (or can be) followed up by language bridging and preparatory courses in order to qualify the new member for formal work and academic training. Such bridging course material picks up where a literacy course ends and develops the communicative skills of the individual from that stage up to the school leaving certificate level and, if necessary, to the matriculation exemption level. The courses comprise syntactical patterning and idioms, terminology, wordbuilding and basic rules of composition and writing. They include the use of bibliographies, work and research into source materials, logical thinking, numeracy and basic English.

The duration of the courses varies according to needs and requirements but some of the bridging spans a period of a year and more.

2.2 English as Second Language

English is taught as a second language to most of the new soldiers who are mainly African mother tongue speakers from various parts of Africa. The main terminology required over and above the words and expressions for daily needs, is a basic military terminology. During the intake and processing of the various groups individuals are tested for verbal and written proficiency in one of the languages of record and where the proficiency does not come up to the standards required, the following basic booklets are disributed: Elementary English for Soldiers, General Military Terminology (the terms with definitions in simple words), and legal as well as administrative terminologies. These publications are now augmented by way of the issue of the Basic Military Dictionary. A full knowledge of the terms and words in the booklets would be quite adequate to enable the new recruit to fully understand his work and communicate effectively.

Examples of the type of terminology referred to are the following:


The action taken by an army to give the soldiers clothes, food (rations), ammunition (bullets), weapons and other things they need to live and housing and transport so that they can do their job and fight.


The planned movement (spreading out, hiding, arrangement in groups of troops) and the different types of attack in battle.

The booklet ELEMENTARY ENGLISH FOR SOLDIERS is illustrated. It contains basic elements such as days of the week, months of the year, past tense, present and future tenses, simple exercises and simple tests, accompanied by comprehensive tests.

2.3 English for Special Purposes

For easy reference a framework is given to depict the different fields of endeavour of disciplines in the NDF: Administration, law, personnel, artillery, infantry, Engineers, armour, air force, navy and its main musterings, military etiquette, parade ground drill and discipline. The most frequent terms used in these fields, together with simple definitions of each term used, are given. The words or terms are based on frequency counts. In addition, an elementary briefing is given on the requirements of glossary and dictionary making, the making and recording of words by way of neologisms, analogy, compounding, derivation (prefixes and suffixes) and standardisation. Military terminology receives special attention.

2.4 Service Writing Conventions

“Service Writing” covers all writing originating within the NDF and meant for communication with and amongst members of the Service. Service writing aims at accuracy, conciseness, clarity, relevance and logic in all its products; it prescribed a certain layout of headings, main headings, group headings, paragraph headings and numbering, including specific block and paragraph presentation. In addition, certain capital letter uses as well as the omission of punctuation in military abbreviations are laid down. The basic conventions for service writing are set out in the Conventions of Service Writing (CSW) promulgated in 1994. A new addition to the publication is the inclusion of a scientifically designed readability guide for staff officers which gives guidelines on the length of sentences, terminology and clarity of formulation. This type of writing was originally designed in the British army a century ago and apart from a slight variance with the latest universal decimal numbering system now used by most academic institutions, the clarity and ease of reading of the system as well as its method of tabular presentation and numbered/flagged enclosures, annexures and appendices are difficult to improve upon.

Since the system forms part of the training of all Army, Air Force and Navy recruits, new members are introduced to the system from the word “go”. The CSW goes a long way towards ensuring uniform, and hence, universally understood military communication.

2.5 Translating and Interpreting into English

2.5.1 The NDF has not only a central language service at Defence Headquarters but there are also subsidiary language services at Arms of the Service (Army, Air Force, Navy, Medical Services), and at many of the Army commands and military training establishments. This is, of course, necessary in a country where there are 11 languages. Army commands fall under the different provinces and each province promulgates its own selection from the 11 national official languages. Should a Tswana speaking member of the public direct an urgent request to the military at, for instance, the Western Cape Command, he will have to be replied to in Tswana in terms of Sect 3 of the Constitution, regardless of the fact that the Western Province official languages are Xhosa, Afrikaans and English.

The NDF provides translation and interpreting services in most European and all South African African Languages.

Translation of lengthy documentation, projects, manuals, etc is undertaken by translation teams, which also include subject specialists. Legally certified and sworn translations are done by expert sworn court translators—the same applies to contracts and legal documents. All official documentation in English and Afrikaans is checked for linguistic and factual correctness and, in cases where this is necessary, also certified by the Language Directorate at Defence Headquarters. The same goes for communications, press releases and correspondence with the public, but obviously not every document can be checked by the Language Service. However, by way of its membership of and close liaison with national language bodies such as the English Academy, die Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, the HSRC, CSIR or universities and technikons as well as professional bodies such as the Translators Institute, Terminology Service of the Department of National Education and others such as the Terminology Association and various African language bodies and committees, the finger is kept on the pulse.

2.5.2 In the field of interpreting, particularly conference interpreting, legal or court interpreting, as well as consecutive and functional interpreting, the Defence Force has been involved for a long time. Examples are interpreting at specialised international military medical congresses, the Incomati Accord, and also interpreting for other state Departments in conjunction with the military at Namibia with UNTAG groups, on medical matters, community affairs, at economic and logistic national conferences, etc. The dissemination of interpreting skills throughout the NDF and, by extension, the entire country, would result in the availability of interpreters in hot spots and during disputes between community elements and local authorities, companies and organisations. This could be, and has already been, an important element in defusing potentially explosive situations. For instance, in labour disputes with local Xhosa speaking Naval members it went a long way in resolving the labour problems. Like literacy education, this capability could be utilised by units in upgrading programmes for the local communities and families of serving members.

The language Directorate is now closely involved in making inputs to the national organising committee towards providing structured interpreting training at national level.

2.6 Language Proficiency Testing

The Language Directorate at the NDF has been testing the proficiency of its prospective members in English and Afrikaans for appointment and promotion for years. In terms of the new appointment and promotion policy members will be appointed to the NDF provided a matriculation of school leaving certificate is furnished reflecting a pass in either language. However, language requirements for particular posts (including language proficiency in any or more languages used in the posts concerned) are reflected in postlanguage profiles set by the Arms of the Service. The Directorate has now submitted proposals for incorporating testing in any of the languages concerned that are required as a part of career planning for all members. This means that the language proficiency required of members is maintained and tested throughout their careers. The proficiency levels are recorded in personnel files and those not complying with the requirements are given remedial or advanced language training, where required, at the various NDF language instruction centres. This forms part of a NDF wide diagnostic language proficiency testing system.

At most headquarters and training units local staff have been trained to undertake such testing and this includes also the many foreign languages used. For instance, at the central language Direcotorate diplomatic personnel and members proceeding overseas are tested in French, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, German, etc before proceeding overseas.

2.7 English Language Usage Manuals

In addition to manuals such as Elementary English for soldiers, English Language Guide, Iron out your English, A user-friendly guide to Good English, English Language for the NDF and several others, the NDF issues English glossaries in the various disciplines: Personnel Management, Operational Terminology, Logistics terms, Computor terms, Artillery, Armour, Engineer, missle, Naval and aircraft terminologies. These glossaries and manuals are also used during special English courses presented by the Language Directorate.

2.8 Editing and Language Advice

Although I have already referred to the aspect of editing under the heading “Translation and Interpreting into English”, it must be pointed out that headquarters and units are compelled in terms of NDFO 40/94 to submit their official communications, instructions, orders, directives and training material to the Language Directorate or its branch offices for editing and correction, and certification, where necessary. This does promote more effective English usage.

In most cases originators and authors will contact the Language Service individually for language advice and for research in difficult or problem cases. The directorate assists where it can and in several cases, where necessary, refers such queries to authorities such as the English Academy or The Dictionary of South African English usage at Grahamstown, or others. All this is done to ensure a high standard of written and spoken English in the National Defence Force.

2.9 The Military Naming Function

Military nomenclature is a vital function of military culture everywhere. With the establishment of the Union Defence Force (UDF) wto military traditions, that of the British Army and that of the armed forces of the former Boer republics were united in 1912, giving rise to a military naming function that had to provide for both traditions. Now, with the integration of the non-statutory forces and the SA National Defence Force other military traditions have been added. The National Defence Force, through its Names Society established in 1990 as a branch of the Names Society of Southern Africa, is at present revising its nomenclature policy for in its names of units, towns, streets and equipment it must reflect the entire South African Society, both historically and culturally. Aspects such as avoiding embarassment to certain population groups, and practical requirements such as unity, simplicity, correct spelling and pronunciation, correct factual data and avoidence of duplication, are all receiving attention. The Director Language Service and the Names Society are jointly involved in national and international nomenclature endeavours.


The National Defence Force (NDF) as part of the democratic new South Africa plays an important role not only in protecting the country and its peoples but also in nation building and its contribution to the RDP.

Effective communication within this context is vital and here the role of English as means of communication plays a cardinal part.

The language service of the NDF, integrated as it is in the national language effort, must fulfil its function in facilitating effective communication in English. It has done much in the past in promoting English language proficiency but even greater efforts are required in the future.

The Language Directorate will maintain and even extend its comprehensive approach towards promoting English proficiency by way of courses, teaching English as a first and second language, testing English proficiency at the different levels in terms of post-language profiles, running an effective terminology and names service, issuing and distributing English language manuals, editing and giving language advice.

The Language Service must test and evaluate the efficiency of its services on an ongoing basis on the basis of constantly monitoring English proficiency needs and standards. It must make use of the outside language agencies it is involved in to serve as a touchstone for greater excellence and in overcoming problems experienced along the way.

It must counter any possible drop in standards through remedial training and testing. This can be done by continuous feed-back from military training establishments to the language service. Immediate remedial action by the language service should constitute an effective counter to any tendencies towards a drop in English language proficiency. And this will in the long run be to the benefit of the productivity of the Force as a whole. For effectiveness of communication is a direct pointer to the effectiveness and productivity of the National Defence Force.

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Last modified: 30 August 1995