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Read a story to children in their home language

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Read a story to children in their home language
It is crucial that in addition to worrying about the effect on teaching and learning, we think about the psychosocial needs of children too. (John McCann/M&G)

In the Northern Cape town of Kuruman, my beloved mother, who had a grade 6 education and spoke very little English, was a master storyteller and told Setswana ditlhamane to her six children every night. 

Growing up in townships and rural towns in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the inherent lack of resources and political instability, my family was like many others in finding ways to entertain us. While my mother was a skilled narrator, my aunt was a gifted actress and she would act out her stories. All this was done in my mother tongue, Setswana, and I have been hooked on stories ever since. We may have lacked books, but these oral stories made me understand the power they hold for a curious child.

Whenever authors are commissioned to write stories, the default language of writing is English before being translated into an African language. That was my first thought when I was commissioned to write the official story for Nal’ibali’s 2020 World Read Aloud Day celebration on February 5.

My brain went into overdrive trying to come up with a story that would be interesting and also affirm the African child. Only a week before I was due to send the story in did a light bulb flash in my mind. The story came to me as soon as I decided I would write it in Setswana and translate it into English. How I underestimated the power of my own language! 

Among the benefits of reading aloud to your children are that it gives you things to talk about and builds a bond between you. What better way to do this than in the language that you express yourself best in?


We live in a multicultural, multilingual country with English constituting 8.3% of home language speakers, Afrikaans 12.1% and Setswana 8.8%, according to Statistics South Africa’s survey in 2016. At 24.6%, isiZulu is the most common home language. Yet the languages in which the majority of literature is published, including for children, are English and Afrikaans. 

Nelson Mandela said that if you speak English, “many people understand you”, but if you talk in their language “you know you go straight to their hearts”. 

Since 2013, Nal’ibali has been bringing children and their caregivers a special story to celebrate World Read Aloud Day. Last year’s story was read to 1 559  730 children on a single day. 

My story for this year’s World Read Aloud Day is called A Day to Remember and has been translated into nine South African languages. It features Nal’ibali’s much loved characters Neo, Josh, Hope, Bella, Noodle and Bella’s mother. 

Visit the Nal’ibali website at nalibali.org to download this year’s story and register your read-aloud session. 

Lorato Trok is an early literacy consultant and develops books for children, especially in African languages

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