To teach your children well, do so in their own language
Mother tongue education was a needless victim of the struggle, writes Nhlanhla Maake
THE importance of International Mother Language Day, which falls on Friday, was intensely dramatised to me through hindsight. I was born one year after the passing of the Bantu Education Act of 1955. One of the mainstays of this education was the education of African children in their mother tongue.
Intellectuals across a broad spectrum unanimously regarded mother tongue as a medium of teaching and learning — along with other objectives of the act’s pedagogy — as anathema to our education.
Like all children who were subject to Bantu education, in the first eight years of primary school, from Sub A and Sub B to Standard 6, I was taught all subjects in my mother tongue, Sotho, the language I adopted through sheer serendipity as my mother tongue.
English and Afrikaans were taught as subjects and were allocated five half-hour slots a week. It was only at the beginning of secondary school that the medium of teaching changed to English.
The advantage of retrospective perspective suggests to me that Bantu education was, albeit inadvertently and ironically, in line with the universally proven pedagogy of the efficacy of teaching the child in his or her mother tongue in the early stages of education.
During the Bantu education era, Bantu languages developed a lexicon through which biology, maths or arithmetic, domestic science, geography and history could be taught, learnt and discussed without recourse to English.
The switch from mother tongue to English in the first years of high school was by complete immersion, generally without the benefit of code-mixing and code-switching, except in cases where teachers extemporised. In retrospect, one can plausibly argue that the transition was not in any way retarding the progress of learning.
Parallel to the entrenchment of the mother tongue in education and “separate development”, perhaps also paradoxically, was the introduction of classical plays on Radio Bantu in different Bantu languages. Hence at the stage of my primary school life I became acquainted with Homer ( The Iliad), Shakespeare ( Macbeth), Haggard ( Nada the Lily), Van Wyk Louw ( Raka) and other classics in my adopted mother tongue.
The architects of Bantu education could not have conceived that this subverted their objective of isolating our intellectual development into tribal silos. When some of these classics were prescribed for me at high school, I simply had to traverse terra cognita in a new language.
I had just completed high school and was working in Soweto as a private teacher when the 1976 student uprisings erupted. The primacy of the language of teaching was of course the last straw when Afrikaans was imposed by the then Department of Bantu Education and Training as the medium of instruction. One of the major questions that we did not ask during that Soweto Spring was whether, in the place of Afrikaans, we were content with English instead of mother tongue as the medium of instruction.
English was preferred and moth-
Bantu education was, ironically, in line with the universally proven efficacy of teaching the child in mother tongue in the early stages
er tongue was associated with Bantu education. Was this an irony of neocolonialism on our side?
When I went to the then University of the North (Turfloop) in the late 1970s, two of the three majors I took were English and Sotho. Those who took a major in an African language were the laughing stock of their peers, whereas those who read Afrikaans as a major were regarded with tacit respect.
Two professors were pioneers in advocating the prescript that dissertations and theses in African languages had to be written and presented for examination in those languages. This added to the mirth of those who undermined the capacity of our languages to bear the rigour of intellectual discourse.
As far as the cynics were concerned, it did not seem strange that scientific papers, treatises and theses were presented even in Afrikaans, the youngest language on the African continent. Needless to say, the tragedy of it was that we were in the post-Biko black consciousness and post-Césaire Négritude, or should we say the interregnum of both?
The imposition of mother tongue as the medium of instruction by the architects of Bantu education — notwithstanding its ulterior motives — preceded the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures and the Unesco International Mother Language Day by about half a century. Clause five of the Asmara Declaration conference, which was held in Eritrea from January 11 to 17 in 2000, states: “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues. Every effort should be made to develop African languages at all levels of education.” International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the general conference of Unesco in November 1999 and has since been celebrated annually on February 21.
In the interim, between Bantu education on the one hand and the South African constitution of 1996 on the other, one would have thought that paradigms about mother tongue would change, but alas, it was not to be. Research has proven beyond reasonable doubt that South Africans whose mother tongue is not English are confident in affirming the supremacy of English over their languages, hence
A major question we did not ask during that Soweto Spring was whether, in place of Afrikaans, we were content with English
a preference for English as the medium of instruction, despite the right accorded by section 29 (2) of the constitution: “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.”
Given the current mindset, such a choice is unlikely to be exercised except by Afrikaans speakers. The stock subterfuge in this regard is that English is the language of the economy. Avaunt! I say.
The suppression and annihilation of African languages and cultures has been the lifeblood of the colonial and neocolonial enterprise. During the 19th century, slave traders and slavers made it a point to render African languages moribund during the Atlantic passage by separating people who spoke the same language and banning the use of their languages and names on the plantations. During the same period the English suppressed Welsh and banished it from schools as the language of instruction; the French used assimilation as their strategy of total linguistic and cultural colonisation; in Russia the languages of all the Soviet republics were suppressed in favour of Russian in education, literature, culture, administration, government and economy, until Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in the mid-’80s.
The question we should ask with regard to the significance of International Mother Language Day is: How seriously do we take it? And how will this be manifested in practical implementation instead of hollow pontificating, declarations and proclamations?
Maake is guest professor at the University of Pretoria and a research fellow at the University of South Africa