Why mother tongue education is the best

For many decades Africa has been the only place in the world where most children are taught in a language that is not their own. This places African languages at the centre of the discussion as far as education is concerned.

The discourse starts from – whether they have enough terminology and vocabulary to be languages of teaching and learning; the economy and wealth; law; and health – and leads back to whether they can make enough academic sense for intellectualisation.

Research shows that these languages are frequently used by teachers to interpret knowledge from an English curriculum to African-language pupils.

Sadly, this practice is likely to grow the language barrier between these pupils’ material printed in English, such as textbooks, assessment questions and briefs.

The importance of African languages

Languages form a pivotal role in our lives as they are inclusive of our different cultures and identities. An African language is not just a series of words but includes certain African nuances that emerge in the form of idioms, metaphors and euphemisms, as well as praises. Language is therefore tied intrinsically to a sense of belonging, which is in turn linked to society and its values.

Teaching in African languages is critical as it can help pupils grasp concepts more easily, pass well and support their success later in life. This is a great advantage.

But resources are a concern.

Improving the existing materials usually means translating from English to an African language, not necessarily developing original African language materials.

Direct translation opens itself up to much criticism, potential for error and dysfunctionality in the process.

African languages and identity

All humans define themselves by the language they speak and the people that use the same language. Their values, ways of socialisation and dignity are exhibited in that language. The heritage of the group of people is also displayed through a language.

What does this mean for African languages?

I believe African languages embody within them a wealth of knowledge that is not articulated well by African-language users and sometimes suffer mis-appropriation and representation by those foreign to them. This suggests that if we are committed to decolonising our education system, African-language users need to play a leading role in designing a curriculum that is inclusive of their languages and that this becomes something more than just a promising ideology.

Do African languages have enough terminology to occupy the academic space?

This debate has been characterised by two views. The first endorses African languages as languages of teaching and learning because they have enough vocabulary and terminology. The second maintains African languages do not have the capacity to be used as languages of teaching and learning. This view has been backed up by sentiments claiming that intellectualisation of African languages will be expensive and/or a waste of time for African-language speakers themselves, who appear less keen to use the languages because of a lack of economic value.

I believe African languages embody within them a wealth of knowledge that is not articulated well by African-language users and sometimes suffer misappropriation from conclusion deduced by those foreign to the languages and their (African languages’) representation. This suggests if we are committed to decolonising our education system, African-language users need to play a leading role in education design that is inclusive – languages that would have an insightful perspective which is more than a promising “ideology”.

Access to print material in African languages is equally important in preserving and promoting mother languages. One of the literacy organisations in South Africa that is promoting the importance of mother language is Nal’ibali – this national reading-for-enjoyment campaign advocates reading and hearing stories in the language we speak and understand. Nal’ibali prides itself in contributing towards promoting multilingualism in South Africa – each week 53 000 literacy supplements are distributed free of charge directly to reading clubs, community organisations, libraries, schools and other partners in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo, North West and KwaZulu-Natal.

A limited number of free supplements will be available at select post offices in Limpopo and North West. Visit www.nalibali.org to see a list of these post offices.

Deyi is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town school of languages and literatures: department of African languages

Each week Nal’ibali bilingual literacy supplements are distributed to reading clubs, community organisations, libraries, schools in Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo, North West and KwaZulu-Natal. To download digital copies of the supplements and more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, visit nalibali.org, nalibali.mobi, or find it on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA