Sunday Times

To teach your children well, do so in their own language

Mother tongue education was a needless victim of the struggle, writes Nhlanhla Maake

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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

 ?? Picture: PETER MAGUBANE ?? NOT THE ANSWER: Pupils learn maths in English in 1977, a year after a student revolt against being taught in Afrikaans
Picture: PETER MAGUBANE NOT THE ANSWER: Pupils learn maths in English in 1977, a year after a student revolt against being taught in Afrikaans

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