International Mother Language Day - Why do we celebrate mother language?

Posted on February 21, 2013

The mother tongue is defined as a language naturally acquired by a child from his environment. It is the language spoken at home and the first language the child learns. The mother tongue is the channel through which people first attempt to express their ideas about themselves and the world around them. It is often said to have ancestral connections. It is also the language of the community into which the child is born. Many mother tongues have ancestral roots, yet signify new beginnings when a child begins to speak it. A child’s first language, be it ancestral or not, is the child’s mother tongue.

Worldwide, the mother tongue is regarded as the language that carries educational benefits if used in school, especially during the first three to six years. It is therefore crucial to all forms of transmission of knowledge, values and socialisation processes. It is so important in learning, because it is the language with which the child is familiar. If children learn in a familiar environment through a familiar language, they can easily engage in the adventure of learning and teaching. Mother tongues enable children to express themselves fluently and with understanding. It enables a child to understand tasks, activities and to listen with understanding. The child is able to reply to questions with ease, thus making it possible to have trust and faith in the subject content. Language is an essential tool in the education of the child and achieving better understanding in a class depends on the language of instruction used by the teacher.

The mother tongue is not only of educational value. It also has personal and social significance to the users. It is defined as the language a person identifies with, a language other people identify you with, and the language a person uses most times. Identity is a root of self- awareness and self-pride. Someone who cannot trace their identity to that of a bigger cultural group, may find themselves lost. Identity holds people of the same culture and language together. The values, norms and mores of the same cultural group are easily passed from one generation to the other through their shared language. Communication is thus simplified in this type of group. When young children are able to communicate with their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, their family bonds are strengthened. Cultural groups celebrate their traditional events together, and the group’s identity is maintained and becomes stronger.

It is the right of every individual to use and maintain his language. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children states that children’s culture should be promoted and maintained as far as is possible, including their language. This is echoed in the South African Constitution, which ensures the official status of all the indigenous languages. The government endorses this in the Language in Education Policy (LiEP,1997), that states that it is in the child’s best interests to be taught in the mother tongue in the first three years of schooling.

How do institutions of learning respond to this call of promoting mother tongue learning? The Department of Higher Education initiated a project funded by the European Union in all universities across the country. The aim of the project is to enable Departments of Early Childhood Education or Foundation Phase at different universities to conduct research that will strengthen Foundation Phase BEd programmes. Amongst the foci of this research is the mother tongue leg which looks into how the indigenous languages that are officially recognised in South Africa can be mainstreamed in teacher education programmes. The University of Pretoria is leading one of the consortia of the project. Included are the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Tshwane University of Technology and the Central University of Technology. In this project material is compiled to address the teaching of mother tongues, especially African languages, at teacher education level. This material, which will include electronic media, will be available by 2014.

*Dr Nkidi Phatudi is a lecturer in the Department of Early Childhood Education, Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria.

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