Reflections on the mother language

International Mother Language Day on February 21 was an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the mother tongue and why it should matter to us all. But before doing so, it is perhaps important to start by defining what a mother tongue is. A mother tongue is the language spoken between mother and child.
It is therefore the child’s first language. It is acquired unconsciously and in most cases the mother tongue is learned perfectly. By that I mean the child does not make grammatical errors in speaking his or her mother tongue. If used in all contexts, the mother tongue is the perfect language for teaching and learning. It is also the perfect vehicle for expressing oneself.

The language situation in South Africa is, unfortunately, not supportive of all mother tongues. Despite the obvious advantages of using the mother tongue for teaching and learning and for expressing ourselves, we continue to insist on teaching our children in anything but the mother tongue. We also insist on forcing our children to learn in anything but the mother tongue. Despite the fact that we are all constitutionally entitled to express ourselves in all 11 official languages, we stumble and stutter to express ourselves in languages we have limited command of. In the process, we are labelled inarticulate or confused or both.

Of course, there are historical and pragmatic reasons for the status quo. Education was introduced in these parts of the world as necessarily involving teaching and learning in colonial languages. Hence it is widely believed, even today, that one is not really educated if he or she does not speak English, or French, or some other colonial language. Also, it is generally believed, erroneously I might add, that expressing oneself in English shows that one is ‘detribalised” and has become ‘civilised”, what in isiZulu is called ‘ukuphucuka”.

On the pragmatic side, there are real constraints to teaching and learning in all our mother tongues. For starters, there is a paucity of resources, both human and material, to make teaching and learning across the curriculum and throughout the education system possible in all mother tongues. Further, developing the necessary resources to achieve mother-tongue teaching and learning will be expensive. And so the outmoded status quo continues, and it comes with a heavy price tag.

So, what can we expect from the status quo? Three scenarios deserve our attention:

  • The value and utility of the mother tongue will continue to shrink in our minds. Language is, after all, also a tool. And, like all tools, if you do not use it you will soon come to the conclusion that it is not worth keeping or preserving. In other words, if our mother tongues are not part of our daily discourse, in teaching, learning, work, media, political discourse, the reason for preserving them will disappear. There is evidence that this is beginning to happen, especially in the urban areas.
  • Shrinking depth of knowledge of the mother tongue. Generally speaking, the full knowledge of a language consists of roughly three areas: the idiom (that is, poetry, idioms, metaphors and humour), the literary and scientific, and the literal. The limited discourse space for the mother tongue is resulting in the loss of idiom and the little literary form developed during the colonial and apartheid periods. Mother tongues are, therefore, being reduced to the purely literal form, hardly a good reason for speaking any language.
  • Sustained high failure rates. The failure rate for matriculants is already extremely high. And when one adds the failure rate at the tertiary level, the picture is depressing.
Of the roughly 16% of matriculants who make it to university, less than 30% will emerge from university with a qualification. Many factors are cited to explain the failure rates, including resources, the qualifications of teachers, the socio-economic conditions of the students, et cetera. But a large part of the problem is also language — the language of teaching and learning.

In the vast majority of schools, neither the teachers nor the students can express themselves fluently in English, the language of examination. It is no wonder the failure rates are so high. If we persist with the status quo, we can expect more of the same.

Most people of goodwill will agree that the status quo is not a viable option, despite sustained efforts to convince us otherwise. We are losing too many young people because we refuse to adapt and offer education in the mother tongue of the learner. Yes, it is true that right now we are not equipped to offer education to all learners in their mother tongue. But what are we doing to change that? Where is the blueprint for solving this enormous problem? Are we content simply to say mother tongue instruction should be limited to the first three to five years of school? When will our children have the right to learn everything in their mother languages, so that they too can concentrate on understanding the subject matter rather than constantly wrestling with the language before even attempting to grapple with the subject matter?

Nhlanhla Thwala is the acting director of the Wits language school at the University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity

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