September 27, 2019

Promoting indigenous languages in South Africa

On Heritage Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa described the promotion of indigenous languages as an important means of preserving South Africa’s heritage. His emphasis is not only in line with the declaration by the United Nations proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages but also laudable and appropriate in a country whose constitution protects the rights of all languages. Language has the power to promote social cohesion in South Africa’s multicultural context and can also play a fundamental part in building a human rights culture in our country.

However, there is a complex interrelationship between language, heritage and culture in South Africa and we need equitable space for indigenous languages to grow and create value. We preserve and develop language through writing, reading and speaking, and thus the role of education is central when considering how best to ensure that a range of languages flourish. 

Education policy in South Africa regarding indigenous languages 

The South African constitution protects the individual’s right to receive basic education in the language of his or her choice, while South Africa’s current Language in Education Policy (LiEP) places emphasis on literacy in mother tongue and the use of mother tongue as a medium in education for as long as possible. The underpinning philosophy of the LiEP is informed by an approach called ‘additive bilingualism’, which proposes the use of mother tongue for at least the first six grades of a child’s education with the addition of at least one other language to complement rather than replace the mother tongue. The LiEP’s only proviso is that the language of learning and teaching must be an official language of South Africa. In other words, not only is it the intention of the LiEP that citizens should be multilingual but it also recognises the importance of the use of mother tongue for learning as an essential step in ensuring the development of literacy and numeracy. The fact that two languages are required to pass Grade 12 is evidence of the way in which multilingualism is accordingly promoted in the schooling sector.

Policy implementation
Although provision is made in the LiEP for a variety of additive bilingual models, the typical approach has been mother tongue plus English for the majority of learners. Specifically, even though the language policy does not dictate a switch to English at Grade 4, the most common practice by far is the transition to English as the medium of instruction in Grade 4.

Why does practice differ from policy? Five reasons
The implementation of policy is different from policy intentions for a myriad of reasons. Some of these are as follows:
1. School Governing Bodies have the the right to determine an individual school’s language, and they often opt for the majority language in a school as the language of learning and teaching.
2. General opinion has never reconciled the extension of mother-tongue instruction at school.
3. Teachers generally want to teach in English and their own proficiency in indigenous languages is not always promoted or developed.
4. There are currently no learning benchmarks for indigenous languages.
5. The home is frequently not a site of learning or reading. Worryingly, 58% of South African households do not have any leisure reading books while the recent Stats SA General Household Survey reveals that nearly half of the country’s children have never read a book with a parent or a guardian.

What should be done? Five suggestions
1. Firstly, children should learn in their mother tongue for at least six years. English should be introduced from Grade 1 but the switch to English as the language of learning and teaching should happen in Grade 7. Whilst promoted in policy, government needs to drive a proactive interventionist strategy to gain buy-in from the sector as a whole.
2. Secondly, indigenous language teaching must be strengthened. The country is not producing a sufficient pipeline of teachers who can teach indigenous languages in early grades.
3. Thirdly, there is a need for a graded reading series in all indigenous languages so that children can have better access to books. In addition, we need a formal register for indigenous languages reading material.
4. Fourthly, the broader book development ecosystem needs to be strengthened in order to develop and publish indigenous language books which are culturally and contextually relevant.
5. Finally, South Africa needs a collaborative stakeholder-led public campaign to promote reading and writing. This will stimulate a demand for books thereby creating a sense of the value and pride that reading and writing in one’s mother tongue can bring to children. The government has started well with its Read to Lead Campaign and the National Reading Coalition but working together we can achieve so much more.