South Africa: Here, mother tongue clashes with her m other ’s tongue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Mar 8 17:14:31 UTC 2009

Here, mother tongue clashes with her mother’s tongue
Facing Leader  Published:Mar 08, 2009


The performance of our primary school children in numeracy and
literacy is a result of misguided language policy We need the
government to make an unambiguous commitment to halt the slow death of
our indigenous languages

Ultimately, our children pay the price for the constant erosion of
African languages, says Mamphela Ramphele  Can you imagine a French
child arriving at preschool being greeted by a teacher in broken
English? Or a child in grade 1 being taught in English by a teacher
who is not proficient in the language because her mother tongue is
French?  Welcome to the daily reality of indigenous African language
teaching in post-apartheid South Africa. If language is not only the
medium of communication, but also a means of cultural heritage
transmission between generations, how are our children to know who
they are and what heritage they bring to South Africa’s diversity?

South African Airways, the national carrier, must be one of few
state-owned airlines on which passengers are not greeted in a dominant
indigenous language. African language use is restricted to one line or
phrase, almost as an afterthought: Hambani Kahle! Tsamayang hantle!
Contrast this with Egypt or Kenya Airways, where one is welcomed and
taken through safety procedures in their dominant indigenous
languages, Arabic and Swahili, respectively. If it was not so tragic,
it would be comical how many African journalists at our national
broadcaster, the SABC, pronounce their own and their colleagues’ names
in an Anglicised manner. Tebogo, Tshepiso and many others become
unrecognisable utterances as our young professionals roll their
tongues awkwardly around names that should come naturally.

There seems to be a growing trend to downgrade the importance of
indigenous languages in all walks of life in our young democracy.
English has become the language of political discourse inside and
outside parliament. Imbizos in some of the remotest areas of our
country have been, over the last decade or so, largely conducted in
English. Elites, young and old, seem to equate sophistication with the
use of English with as much of a non-African accent as possible.

What accounts for this trend?

First, our constitution fudged the language issue by declaring all 11
languages as official. This allowed for English to be the de facto
dominant official language even though, numerically, Zulu and
Afrikaans are spoken by many more people at home than English. English
has the advantage of being the international language of commerce and
politics. But have we ever asked ourselves why Chinese and Japanese
political leaders insist on using their indigenous languages? They
talk through interpreters, although they understand and speak English
very well. They are asserting their sovereignty as nations that are
proud of their heritage. What about us?

Second, our education authorities have ignored the basic principles of
learning in creating a post-apartheid framework for the choice
language of instruction. There is overwhelming evidence that learning
through the first language or mother tongue helps to anchor learning
in the child’s immediate environment: family, community and everyday
interactions. Children who are taught in the first few years in their
mother tongue, while other languages are introduced as subjects, tend
to become more proficient in all languages. It provides the anchor for
better and deeper learning by linking it to everyday life and one’s
own identity.

Few people would advocate mother-tongue instruction all the way up the
education tree, given the underdeveloped nature of many of our
indigenous languages. But recent educational practice has created a
tragic situation in which most teachers and pupils in poor schools do
not have adequate command of any of the 11 official languages to be
able to function well in society.

The performance of our primary school children in numeracy and
literacy is in many ways a result of the misguided language policy
implementation. The World Economic Forum’s 2008 Competitiveness Report
places us 132nd out of 134 countries in maths and science. Our own
systematic evaluation shows that, in 2007, numeracy levels among grade
3 pupils were 36%, while only 15% passed both numeracy and literacy

Third, there is the misuse of democracy in implementing our language
of instruction policy. Why put poor, illiterate parents in the
invidious position of making a decision of such paramount importance
without giving them all the available educational facts about the
risks and opportunities of each choice?

It is not surprising that parents of children in a rural North West or
Limpopo school would opt for English or Afrikaans as preferred mediums
of instruction in preschool. After all, they can see that the
successful people are the ones who speak those languages, so why would
they not want their children to join this path to success?

What is missing in the choices put to parents is a discussion about
the fact that the pathway to proficiency in any language is made much
easier by building on the self-confidence bestowed by pride in one’s
own language and cultural heritage.

Our current approaches alienate children from their cultural roots and
make parents’ participation in the education of their children
difficult. How can they participate in a process in which their
primary medium of communication is rendered irrelevant? How can they
help their own children learn when the language of instruction becomes
a barrier to communication from the first day of school?

An even more profound impact of this language policy is the
undermining of the parental authority so essential to shaping the
values and world-view of children at this stage of their development.
Why should children respect parents who only speak a devalued

South Africa is not alone in undermining indigenous African languages.
Professor Pai Obanya, a retired Nigerian education strategist,
suggests that education in Africa tends to alienate elites from their
roots and undermine their capacity to be effective agents of change to
promote sustainable development. “Education is mainly about
acculturation, to be learned is to be cultured. .. Starting off an
acculturation process with non-first language tends to . .. lead to a
situation in which the person could become knowledgeable but not
cultured, and developing a feeling of belonging nowhere.”

Elites in Africa are contributing to this trend by educating their
children in private schools, where the teaching of indigenous African
languages is minimal. Many see the inability of their children to
communicate in their mother tongue as a badge of honour.

I never thought I would hear my fellow professionals saying without
any touch of irony: “Thabo cannot hear what you are saying. He only
speaks English.” Or proclaiming proudly that their daughter cannot
play with her cousins because she cannot understand “their language”.

The overall impact of the misguided policy on the language of
instruction in our education system is leading to a slow death of
African languages. Not only are our children not exposed to these
languages early on in school, but the quality of language teaching has
been substantially degraded.

The curriculum requirement for languages set the bar so low that few
would fail to get high marks — but they remain largely ignorant of the
richness and nuances of the language.

The experience my generation had of wrestling with African idioms,
proverbs and challenging texts and grammar is a distant memory. The
classical novels we read as students are out of print and few new ones
have been published.

Publishers have long given up on African language publications because
of weak demand.

African language departments in our higher education institutions are
dying because of a lack of interest by students and academics.
Parliament is hopelessly behind schedule in translation services for
Hansard because of a dearth of translators, not to mention the
challenge of making court proceedings substantively accessible to
indigenous African language speakers, in line with our constitutional
commitments. A travesty of justice is being played out in our national

This language question requires leadership to elevate it to a key
public-interest issue. We need the government to make an unambiguous
commitment to halt the slow death of our indigenous languages.
Promoting their use should start with our president and his cabinet.

Education authorities should do a better job than to pass the buck to
poor communities to make a Hobson’s choice. Careful, progressive
introduction of other languages, on a firm foundation of mother tongue
in the first few years of school, will align learning to the cultural
heritage of learners and promote the greater participation of parents
in the learning of their children and support for schools.

Business and other leaders in civil society have a responsibility to
keep this rich heritage alive, too. BEE beneficiaries should help to
salvage the rich African cultural heritage that is at risk of being
lost in the next few generations.

Church leaders also have a role to play to ensure that the beauty of
our religious idioms and hymns are not lost.

I can only hope that we can all wake up before something beautiful
dies on our watch. No nation can succeed in building a prosperous
democracy without mobilising the heritage, talents and pride of its

Ubuntu (humanity to others) and Batho Pele (people first) as values of
our society can only thrive if anchored to a firmer cultural heritage
base. To leverage South Africa’s rich diversity of languages is key to
our success.

Ramphele is a South African academic, businesswoman and medical doctor
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