Home language is key to success

It may sound melodramatic, but a moment’s thought will convince you that the following statement is true: one of the fundamental reasons for the economic failure of post-colonial Africa south of the Arabic zone is the fact that, with a few important exceptions, mother- tongue (home language) education is not practised in any of the independent African states.

Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not true that only ‘monolingual” countries have been economically successful in the modern world.

These two statements lie at the heart of the language issue in Africa, including post-apartheid South Africa. It is a fact that a child, or any other learner, can be taught and can learn in any language provided she or he has a sufficient command of the language concerned.
For most people and in most practical situations, that language is the mother tongue — that is, the language(s) in which the child first meets the world, forms concepts,and learns to expand and deepen thinking, feeling and imagining.

Nothing is more opposed to the achievement of quality education than having to ‘learn” in a language one does not know well enough. This is the reason why mother-tongue education is taken for granted throughout the world — with the exception of most of Africa and a few Asian and East European countries. Even Iceland, with only 350 000 speakers of Icelandic, has a system of mother-tongue education from the cradle to university and beyond.

In South Africa, one of the worst legacies of Bantu education is the uninformed rejection of mother-tongue education by most black people. The use of the ‘mother tongue” was used to inculcate a racist curriculum based on the supposed inferiority of black people. A deliberate underfunding of the African languages by the apartheid regime also helped turn the universally valid principle of mother- tongue education into an intellectual, social and cultural trap for the majority of the people.

In addition, the enforced learning of, and in, Afrikaans, and the calculated anti-English milieu that characterised apartheid education led to most people rejecting the possibility of their languages becoming languages of power and status. Instead, English was seen as the language of aspiration and of ‘liberation” as opposed to Afrikaans, ‘the language of the oppressor”.

No wonder, then, that, in South Africa today, we live in a linguistic wonderland where all manner of illogicalities and fantasies make for a false sense of certainty. Because the elite, black and white, are comfortable in English and they believe that everyone can similarly become ‘empowered”, they insist that an English-only or, at best, an English-mainly, regime is what we need in the new South Africa. They tend to pay lip service to the constitutional equality of the 11 official languages and reinforce their pro-English stance with misleading arguments about the success of ‘monolingual” economies.

Since this elite is made up of role models for much of the country, their attitudes and values — but not their wealth — trickle down to the impoverished masses. People do not believe that their home languages can ever become as ‘developed” as English, or even Afrikaans. While they love and cherish these languages, it is English that they see as the key to success. Hence, most of them — apparently — insist on English-medium schooling for their children.

This is a rational response to an irrational perception of the problem. To dispel the mists and the myths of confusion requires a few simple truths about language. No people in the history of the world have ever voluntarily given up their language(s); only slaves and immigrants do so. No state has ever managed to become powerful and economically successful through the medium of a second, or a foreign, language alone.

A learner-centred educational system is, by definition, based on the language(s) that the learners understand best. This, together with good teaching practice and resources, is what makes for quality education.

The common feature that defines economically successful political entities is not monolingualism but, rather, high levels of literacy. Language skills such as reading and writing are transferable. The learners who do best in South Africa are those who are taught and assessed in their home languages throughout — English and Afrikaans speakers. Language-medium policy is, next to bad teaching, the main reason for the economically indefensible average 50% matric failure rate that we have ‘achieved” annually over the past 30 years or so.

The self-esteem, self-confidence, creativity, engagement and participation that come with being taught in one’s home language are irreplaceable assets of a system based on the mother tongue(s) of the learners. In South Africa, because of the legacy of apartheid education, it is necessary for the foreseeable future to establish a mother-tongue-based bilingual educational system on the assumption that most people will inevitably choose English as the other language to be learnt and/or to learn in.

This approach will set the minds of parents at rest that their children will emerge from the system knowing both their own language(s) and the economically dominant English language. The educational and economic benefits of such a system are demonstrably and hugely positive.

Neville Alexander is the director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa at the University of Cape Town

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