Children left speechless, denied identity


I have heard parents say that they aspire for their children to only speak English, or that they prioritise the speaking of the language above all others, particularly their own African languages. 

I have come to learn why this happens, but I have also come to realise that this trend is often embedded in fear. Fear of children not making good progress at school, fear of their children being the odd one out, fear of the unknown. 

Some parents also have an unspoken disregard for their own languages, internalised traumas of their own language journeys that they do not wish their children to share. 

Many people use a person’s ability to articulate themselves clearly in English as an indicator of intelligence and, at times, of success. 

It is all these things that make parents choose English over their home languages, even when study after study tells us that children who are taught in their mother tongue in the early years of learning tend to do better later on in school and that their acquisition of a second and even third language is a lot more seamless.

Despite this, parents still want their children to start grade R in an English medium school. Schools where the language of teaching and learning is English are deemed to be a lot better than those who use African languages as the medium of instruction.

Some parents ask why they should even choose an African language as a first or second additional language when there aren’t enough “good” high schools where their children can continue with the additional language of their choice. Others are convinced that an African language will do their children no good, rendering African languages useless for their children’s advancement and development. 

Many are unwilling to challenge the status quo in the schools where their children are. No requests are made for teachers to use African languages or for more language learning options to be made available 

It is a strange phenomenon given the history of South Africa, particularly if one considers the Soweto uprising of 1976 when children protested against Afrikaans being the language of instruction in schools. How is it that even though we have a painful history of identity and language, we still prefer our children to speak English, and in some cases Afrikaans, rather than any African language? 

I do not have the answers to these questions. I do, however, have a conviction, having worked with children for most of my life and had the privilege of interacting with children and parents.

My conviction is that language is not just a tool used to communicate. It also shapes our identity and is an early foundation of our cultural experiences. There are language intricacies and nuances that can only be truly understood in the context of the ethnic group that speaks the language.

It is the most heartbreaking experience to watch children who identify as umZulu but can barely pronounce their name and surname, let alone speak the language. It is even more heartbreaking when the children themselves realise that they cannot speak their “home” language. They deliberately avoid those children who converse easily in isiZulu. They feel embarrassed and ashamed and, as they grow older, they resent their parents who did not care to teach them their mother tongue. The identity crisis experienced by these young people is profound. 

And yet parents still practice certain customs and traditions and the child is expected to participate. As parents, we don’t think of the distress we put our children through when they suddenly have to “go to the mountain” — the initiation and a coming of age ritual for young men. 

How do these boys spend weeks on the mountain without being able to speak their home language? Are they even truly accepted by the other boys? Can they claim to be the heirs and custodians of a culture they do not have a language for?

We steal much more than we can comprehend when we take away a child’s home language. We steal their identity, we steal their experiences, we steal their connection with a world of their extended families and ancestors, we steal their humanness. We rob them of so much more than we give them through the English language and you will never know this until you meet a young person who has experienced this pain.

May we continue to create better futures for our children, but not at the expense of their identities. May we continue to harness and teach our children, not just the importance of African languages but the practice of being eloquent in their home languages. It is an injustice not to do so.

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Yandiswa Xhakaza
Yandiswa Xhakaza is the chief executive of The Nal’ibali Trust, which works towards sparking and sustaining a culture of reading, writing and storytelling among children

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