The language question in SA

Zohra Dawood says mother tongue learning at an early age is key


 Feb 21, 2018

The title of this article draws on a quote from American feminist writer, Rita Mae Brown, who said, “…language is the roadmap of culture. It tells you where its people came from and where they are going”.

Language rights and questions, like so many issues in South Africa at the dawn of democracy, were, in the words of former Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, “never about function and convenience. The approach embodied in the Constitution is accordingly not based on numbers as such but on historical, sociological and political fact”. Hence the agreement amongst all parties at the constitutional negotiations to make the following the official languages of the country: Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

At first glance, the number of official languages, standing at 11, confounds the imagination. However, the principle of language equality in South Africa is an imperative in a country that had historically enforced bilingualism, with English and Afrikaans as the official languages and African languages being relegated to homeland territories. Constitutional drafters were mindful of the need for both delicacy and respect. Hence the proposal not to downgrade the two official languages but to instead upgrade nine African languages, was drafted into the final Constitution.

Again, Judge Albie Sachs sums up the place of language when he writes that, “the language question is a question of communication, but it is also a matter of identity on the one hand, and of empowerment and disempowerment on the other”. This sums up South Africa on the cusp of the transition to democracy and why language as cultural identity, required sensitive handling. 

While sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution are clear in respect of language and cultural rights, a major and continuing fault line in the discourse about language rights is in that of language policy in education. The issue continues to evoke strident and often emotional responses and is often both politicised and racialised, in respect of the role of the Afrikaans language in schools and universities as primary medium of instruction. Afrikaans, after isiZulu and isiXhosa, is the third most spoken language in the country by “non-white” people and this may well qualify it as an indigenous language.    

Professor Andrew Foley, Director of the Division of Languages in the Department of English at Wits University writes that, “the question of mother-tongue education in South Africa remains a vexed one. On the one hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to receive education in their mother tongue, if they so wish. On the other hand, there are some very real difficulties involved in the implementation of this ideal”, including language development, curriculum development, teacher education and implementation of policy on the ground.

Despite the difficulties of effective implementation, Professor Foley, like many other educationalists, linguists and researchers, is an advocate for mother language education. Overwhelming evidence exists that teaching younger children in mother tongue is an aid to cognitive and learning ability, and is key to the development and transfer of communication skills, knowledge and information within families and communities. The limitations of not fully understanding the texture, nuance and content in the language of instruction disable comprehension and positive education outcomes, as is increasingly evident in South Africa.      

In a seminal paper on Schooling in and for the New South Africa, the late Professor Neville Alexander, educationist and language policy advisor to government, summed up his views.  He scathingly wrote, “…let me make the point bluntly: the failure to understand and to address the language issue in the educational system is tantamount to an act of national suicide by omission. It is my view that people are dilly-dallying on one of the most important issues, if not the most important, issue in education. Indeed, if I may transpose a mispronunciation by a certain teacher at a workshop: instead of being a stepping stone to effective learning, language policy more often than not is perceived as a ‘stopping stone’ that prevents such learning”. He adds that, “For something like 70-80% of the population of South Africa, it is simply not possible currently to acquire the kind of proficiency in English that would empower them sufficiently to be able to compete on an equitable basis in the market for highly skilled and remunerated jobs. And democracy, we should remind ourselves, means power to the people. Language is one of the most important means of empowerment of both individuals and societies, and for that reason the language question is at the heart of a sound democratic system of education”.

The UN’s declaration of 21 February as International Mother Language Day is an opportune time to examine the pedagogical, policy and practice of the promotion of the language of education in South Africa. From the words from the UN website, the significance of mother language promotion is that “Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity… To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired.” In the light of the above, it is opportune that the 2018 theme for International Mother Language is ‘Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism Count for Sustainable Development’. 

It is of fundamental importance that the issue of mother language education, or the lack thereof, is a contributory factor in the less than optimal education outcomes achieved in the main by students who are non-mother tongue English speakers. This is of course one factor in addition to the range of others outlined in Professor Alexander’s paper cited above, including poverty, rural/urban divide, race and class, amongst others. The infrastructure to build the system - including teacher training, the development of academic vocabulary and curriculum development - has been largely put on the backburner, despite government’s stated commitment to implementation.  

However, it is not too soon to dust off the policy framework and give these an impetus if the future of our children remains a key consideration. The Funza Lushaka Bursary Programme is one such step in the right direction. Its intention to support bursaries for would-be teachers of indigenous African languages who come from rural areas, will prove effective in bolstering the quality and number of people who can teach in at least one or more of SA’s official languages.

Expectations are high that new President Cyril Ramaphosa will not only rejuvenate the criminal justice system, treasury and SOEs, amongst others, but crucially, as he outlined in his maiden SONA, but that he will give real effect to a vital sentiment in his speech that, “there  are 57 million of us, each with different histories, languages, cultures, experiences, views and interests. Yet we are bound by a common destiny”. His emphasis on building a society defined by decency and integrity is at its core an acceptance of history, with a view to building a collective future.  

The promotion of mother language education in South Africa is vexed and vexing. It is imperative that it does not become a site of struggle, and that none of the 11 official languages are discriminated against. This would run counter to the values and provisions of the Constitution.      

Ms Zohra Dawood, Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity.