Today we celebrate International Mother Language Day, a day which falls under the protection of UNESCO. Since 2000 every year has had a specific theme which was emphasised. The theme for 2017 is mother tongue and multilingual education. The main focus is a celebration of and respect for cultural diversity and multilingualism – a particularly fitting theme for us in South Africa. Multilingualism is often seen as a problem and, as result, many children world-wide are not educated in their mother tongues, or only for a few years (as is mostly the case in South Africa).
International Mother Language Day has its origin in the demand of Pakistani students in 1952 to have Bengali, in addition to Urdu, recognised as official language. A number of students perished in the fights which resulted from this campaign. As we know full well in South Africa, unresolved language issues frequently lead to violence.
The matter of mother tongue education is a burning question at the few universities where teaching still takes place in both Afrikaans and English — therefore also at the University of Pretoria (UP). The debate is often emotional and is characterised by a strong emphasis on race. The perception is that mother tongue education at tertiary level predominantly favours white, Afrikaans students (although the same argument on the advantages of mother tongue education also apply to white English-speaking, brown, Indian and black students). The majority of black students are not in the privileged position of receiving mother tongue education at tertiary level. Many of these students struggle with English and, as a result, experience a 'double' study burden which has often been cited as a cause for poor academic performance.
The crux of the matter is that global research over decades by, among others, UNESCO itself, has undeniably shown that mother tongue education from as early as possible for as long as possible — in other words, even up to tertiary level, but at least for the first eight years of schooling — is by far the most advantageous for the cognitive and academic development of children. There are no informed voices questioning these findings. Therefore, if students think that they do not compete on a level playing field with students who receive tertiary education in their mother tongue, they are correct.
What is this about? In the first place language is an integral part of human cognition and it is therefore possible to produce and understand language without much cognitive effort, in other words, without actually thinking about it. This makes language one of the most important cognitive instruments of the human brain. You become aware of your mother tongue in the womb already and therefore your language acquisition process starts before you are born. Your mother tongue is from beginning to end part of your life. Some linguists even contend that your mother tongue influences the way in which you see the world as different languages equip their speakers differently with regard to the types of equipment through which meaning can be expressed. Given that our mother tongue shapes our thinking in this way, it is the ultimate language for us in which to master complex ideas. Concepts are fixed most easily and with the least emotional stress through the most familiar language. Once concepts have been captured (around 14 years of age), the acquired cognitive skills can easily be transferred to a second language. In fact, second and third languages are also acquired more easily when the mother tongue receives enough attention at home and in school. It is imperative for the mother tongue to have solid foundation. Later on a second or third language can also be used as language of teaching without any problems. However, it is clear that this initial capturing of the mother tongue is not generally taking place in South Africa with significant consequences for study in later years.
This brings us to a second core issue. Mother tongue education does not exclude multilingualism, especially not the acquisition of English (a wonderful rich language which can open up new worlds). However, replacing mother tongue education in the fourth school year with (often poor) English medium teaching, serves no purpose. Not only will the requisite learning (mastery of concepts) not take place, but the value of the English acquired is also limited. Languages should be added to the repertories of children and the mother tongue should never be removed or seen as a stumbling block on the way to success.
The acceptance of multilingual education in South Africa will undoubtedly give rise to its own challenges and require meticulous planning, political will, courage and perseverance. On the other hand, the gains may be significant — and the conservation of our cultural heritage is but one of these gains.
This argument is not only in favour of a celebration of diversity, but also a plea for tolerance towards and respect for other languages, especially our African languages.
May the debate continue — and not only in Afrikaans and in English.
Prof Nerina Bosman is Associate Professor, and Ms Suléne Pilon is Lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria.