Attitudes to African languages biggest hindrance to growth

Posted on February 20, 2013

According to Prof. Webb, who is director of CentRePoL (Centre for Research in the Politics of Language) at UP, Census 2011 has shown a drop in the number of mother tongue users in almost all African languages – and most notably isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana and Siswati.

“To ensure growth in African languages, parents must be part of the movement to promote them. These languages must be seen as a means to an end: social prestige, job opportunities and so forth,” says Prof. Webb.

Prof. Webb believes that the emphasis on English during the first five to seven years of school has disastrous consequences for those children who – until they enter Grade 1 – have not been exposed to English.

“It is an academic imperative for these children to first have developed cognitively, before introducing them to English. The first language in which you are taught, should be one you know well – usually your mother tongue.

“Failure to do so means that these children begin their academic life with a handicap. Only in exceptional cases are they able to overcome this handicap and achieve good to excellent results,” says Prof. Webb.

Simply put: it is difficult to answer a question correctly, when you do not fully understand the question itself.

Prof. Webb believes the solution is not to lower standards, but rather to understand the importance of mother tongue language to a child’s growth and development.UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) advocates mother tongue instruction in a bilingual or multi-lingual approach in the early years because of the strong foundation it creates for learning.

“Multilingualism is a source of strength and opportunity for humanity. It embodies our cultural diversity and encourages the exchange of views, the renewal of ideas and the broadening of our capacity to imagine,” says Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General.

Prof. Webb agrees, but adds that the promotion of mother tongue education also gives that child a strong sense of identity and socio-cultural acceptance. He uses the steady growth and academic, economic and other achievements by mother tongue Afrikaans-speakers as an example.

“The attitude towards African languages is the greatest obstacle to their growth, but changes in attitude cannot be legislated. Change will only happen when the language society – parents, teachers, language communities – actively promote their own languages, for instance through their usage in formal situations.

If this does not happen, many young minds will remain colonised in South Africa,” says Prof. Webb.

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