International Mother Language Day: Are South Africans linguistic cave dwellers?

Posted on February 27, 2015

UNESCO promotes mother-tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education – an important factor for inclusion and quality in education. The theme for UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day 2015 is ‘Inclusion in and through education: Language counts’. On reading this, any South African involved in education would immediately relate to these aspirations, since all the buzzwords relevant to the South African educational context are present: mother-tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education, inclusion and quality. Surely, if the UNESCO policy is aimed at attaining quality and inclusive education for all, South Africans should support such a policy enthusiastically, since these are the pressing ones in education today.

Why, then, does it feel as if South African academics, teachers and – most importantly – learners are still fumbling around in the darkness of an education system in which the language rights of the majority of school learners are underrated? We have access to international normative frameworks for language policy based on sound research. We have well-formulated national policies on language in education, contextualised for the South African situation, but are these perhaps nothing more than colourful stalactites in our educational cave which fail to reach the bottom and thus to support the whole structure? In view of the celebration of mother tongues, which is the purpose of UNESCO’s (rather clunky sounding) Mother Language Day, it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the state of mother-tongue education in South Africa, specifically from an African languages perspective.

One of the anomalies of post-apartheid South Africa is that the only learners who currently enjoy the privilege and benefits of mother-tongue-based education from their initial entry into the schooling system up to university level are those learners with English, and to a lesser extent Afrikaans, as mother tongues. Ironically, learners from these two groups are exactly the ones who were linguistically privileged during the previous political dispensation. So what has changed for those learners who have one of the nine African languages as mother tongues? Very little, I’m afraid, except that they are part of an educational system where the language of teaching and learning is often poor South African English.

There are two key questions to consider with regard to the implementation of the policy of mother-tongue-based education, which, in essence, is a sound one. First, how does one guarantee access to the global and national (economic) environment, in which English is the dominant medium of communication and vehicle of access; secondly, how does one implement the policy without getting bogged down in narrow ethnic nationalism? Perhaps somewhat ironically, the key to the success of mother-tongue-based education lies in the measure of success with which English as an additional language is taught. There is, however, another side to this argument, namely the symbiotic relationship – within an educational setting – between mastering one’s mother tongue and becoming proficient in a second and even third language. It is a moot point that successful learning of additional languages is dependent on an adequate mastering of the home language. Only when this symbiosis is recognised in educational policies will African languages be regarded as providing access to equality, transformation and quality education.

It is against this background that some comment on a policy drafted by the Department of Basic Education on the Incremental Introduction of African languages in South African Schools seems necessary. First of all, the title of the policy document is misleading, since it does not only address the issue of non-African speakers having to learn an African language, but it also speaks to strengthening the use of African languages at home-language level. Therefore, two issues are central to the draft policy. Firstly, it addresses the issue of (additive) multilingualism by proposing the implementation of a programme whereby primary school children in government schools will have to learn an indigenous African language, starting from Grade 1; secondly, it aims to improve proficiency in and use of the indigenous African languages as mother tongues or home languages, as they are referred to in the document. Multilingualism is a multidimensional concept, and it is not clear what the final purpose of delivering a multilingual individual to society would be. Is the sole – and absolutely valid – aim to create social cohesion, or should being multilingual in the final instance empower learners to function and to succeed in an educational environment in which the language of teaching and learning is not the mother tongue? This needs to be stated clearly, since it will inform the pedagogy of teaching African languages in the classroom. Furthermore, seen against the background of the interplay between being fully proficient in one’s mother tongue and the success with which additional languages are acquired, one cannot help but question the wisdom of quantitatively adding more languages, when proficiency in the mother tongue – which surely is the most important cognitive tool – is qualitatively lacking. In its report on last year’s Annual National Assessments the Department of Basic Education identifies the writing of single words and simple sentences and the use of punctuation, capital letters and full stops as areas of weakness in the Grade 1 home language. Is it fair to expect of learners who have not yet mastered these very basic skills in their mother tongue to start learning yet another language, whilst simultaneously attempting to master numeracy and a host of other academic and life skills? Should the emphasis not be rather on qualitatively improving mother-tongue education and maximising the benefit that learners can derive from being taught through the medium of the mother tongue, and secondly, increasing the number of learners who have access to quality mother-tongue tuition, especially during the initial four years of formal schooling and perhaps beyond?

It would seem that the policy, as it currently stands, is yet another stalactite hanging from the roof of our educational cave, not reaching the bedrock. Stalactites grow notoriously slowly, and with ominous shadows flickering against the cave walls of our education system, we have no time to lose. Do our school learners who have an African language as their mother tongue have something to celebrate on International Mother Language Day? I’m afraid not.

Elsabé Taljaard is a professor in the Department of African Languages at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Prof Elsabé Taljaard

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences