Putting our languages on the shelf

February is Language Month and on February 1 we celebrated World Read Aloud Day. All this while we are all still reeling from the report released in December that South Africa is rock bottom out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

As Professor Sarah Howie, director Africa centre for scholarship at the University of Stellenbosch, pointed out at the launch of Language Month and the Pan South African Language Board’s #SpeakItLiveIt campaign, if this was the football or the rugby, there would be an outcry.

What have we done, she asked, to mobilise so that all of our children can read for meaning by the age of 10?

A step in this direction has been taken with the partnership between the board and Exclusive Books. Announced on Thursday night at Exclusive Books in Rosebank, Johannesburg, all the bookseller’s branches will from now carry a range of children and young adults’ books in all official languages.

Pan South African Language Board CEO Rakwena Monareng, who has a teaching background, said the partnership was “acknowledging the voice of Africa”.

“We have texts to work from – spread the word that we have texts teachers can use to teach [our children to read in their mother tongue].”

Ben Williams from Exclusive Books said this partnership was a chance for the bookseller to “give a platform to languages”.

It is long overdue.

Master of ceremonies actor Florence Masebe, who speaks almost all of the official languages, said children hardly speak our languages, let alone read them – that could change with interventions like this.

In a country where statistics show that in half our homes there are fewer than 10 books and most of those are religious texts, we need to start taking drastic action to develop the next generation’s imagination and train them in the vital skill of critical thinking. Without reading neither is possible, she said.

“If you don’t learn to read well in your first language, it puts you behind,” said Howie.

South Africa can’t afford to get any more behind.

- Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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