Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context


Multilingualism in South Africa:
The Role of Mother Tongues in Achieving Social Equity


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Kahdeidra Martin
Updated: 9-19-2004

Students at an elementary school have reading time with older peers who alternate use of Xhosa, the "mother tongue," with English as they read a traditional-themed story.

The core identity of a culture is embodied in and perpetuated by its language—the idioms, proverbs and gestures at once espouse the sanctity of tradition and salience of innovation. Moreover, any discussion about language is inherently a discussion about access to education and economic mobility. As the cornerstone of success in a technology-driven economy, literacy is the “catalyst for inclusion” in South Africa [1], and linguistic equity is needed in order to realize the democratic ideals of mass literacy.
For the nearly eighty percent of South Africa’s forty-five million residents who identify as African (Black), efforts to overcome past discrimination is severely crippled by the population’s low rates of proficiency in English, what many assess to be the de facto language of power and access in the country. Linguistic equity, and by extension all other aspects of social equity, can not be achieved without a concerted effort to preserve, rehabilitate and institutionalize indigenous languages in South Africa. Moreover, a bilingual approach to early literacy has shown indications of providing a sounder pedagogical foundation for achieving literacy in English.
Background: Post-Apartheid as the Postcolonial and the International Debate
Democratic South Africa has the task of transforming itself within the social context of post-apartheid, specifically, and post-colonialism, in general. Despite its singular history of serial dislocations, institutionalized racial segregation and reconciliation, South Africa is a part of the majority of the world’s countries who are striving for social equity in the aftermath of oppressive colonial orders. A central tenet of feminist, race and post-colonial studies is that institutionalized systems of oppression are multifaceted, and any fruitful attempts at liberation must also be such, addressing both the material and immaterial residues of the system.
Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of the Eurocentric colonial system in South Africa, which perhaps reached its nadir during the Afrikaner-ruled apartheid period, was the implementation of a psychological colonization that nearly decimated the spiritual, artistic and intellectual integrity of Black African peoples. Hence, a revalorization of indigenous languages in South Africa is a revalorization of the people who speak these languages. In a democratic South Africa, working to counter past injustices, or achieve social transformation, is not divorced from measures to institutionalize the languages of formerly marginalized communities.
Deciding which language of instruction (LoI) to use in early literacy lies at the core of the national literacy debate in South Africa, but it is not alone, for the process of determining the best methods of instruction in bilingual education is emotional, tortuous and of international proportions. As state, religious and racial borders become more permeable, the expedient need for more comprehensive and representative language policies will increase throughout the world.
The proceedings of a 1997 conference on educational policy in Africa revealed that South Africa’s current literacy practices mirror those of its neighboring countries, in which the LoI is dictated by the geographical distributions of languages in each province. [2]. In this system, the mothertongue is used as the LoI in primary schools with the foreign language (almost always the former colonial language and current language of greatest social mobility) taught as a subject area. At a later period, usually at the end of primary school or start of secondary school, the instructional positions of the languages are inverted. When this occurs, the foreign language becomes the medium of instruction while local languages are taught as subjects.
This immersion method of language acquisition—empathetically known as ‘sink or swim’ among linguists and educators alike—has had dismal results in producing advanced literacy in either language, leaving learners stagnated at basic reading and writing skills and often unprepared for higher or even secondary education. Critics of this method promote bilingual programs that, by introducing the foreign language earlier, are designed to improve foreign language literacy at the higher educational levels. This method also facilitates literacy in the mothertongue as “bridging,” or the systematic comparison of two language systems, builds a solid understanding of the vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics of both.
In Malawi, bilingual literacy instruction using ChiChewa, the mothertongue, proved more effective in developing literacy skills in the mothertongue than the traditional English-only approach. Further evidence to support the effectiveness of bilingual and bridge methods can be found in Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia. Specifically, the “Language Experience Approach” developed in the Northern Province of Zambia is a literature-based method of literacy instruction that uses children’s own dictated stories as the basic text for their reading and writing. Learners are encouraged to engage in free writing exercises, the free up their voices so to speak, and through the process of rereading and revising, they learn the nuances that distinguish the grammars brought to the classroom from those that are being taught. The children who used the program were found to have made more progress in literacy skills when compared to those who had received more traditional instruction [3].
On a global scale, language policies in the education of former colonial countries have followed a similar trend. During the period of colonialism, there was no or little access to education available for the enslaved peoples. When education was available, the content was primarily of the domestic and industrial natures—as was experienced with Bantu Education—and the LoI was the colonial language with severe physical and emotional sanctions meted out to those who dared to speak in their mothertongue. Documented accounts of school administrators’ using corporal punishment to elicit fear and self-hatred in learners can be found throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia. In the period following independence, newly independent states were left with the Sysiphean task of sorting through often hybrid social orders with no clear delineations between traditional and modern, helpful and harmful.
The South African Context
In a brazen move that some have labeled the most progressive language policy in the world, South Africa adopted eleven official languages in its Constitution of 1996. In addition, the constitution states that each person has the right to instruction in his or her language of choice. While intended to promote social harmony, this particular mandate is precisely at the core of a national debate regarding the best method of achieving literacy in a multilingual South Africa. As one can imagine, the sentiments that fuel the debate are torturous and complex.
Parents from each language group would like for their children to be able to retain their cultural language; however, it seems that, primarily, parents are interested in access to greater social mobility for their children. Most of the parents and educators that our seminar group spoke to agreed in their desire for their children to learn English, the only of South Africa’s official languages with international marketability.
Regardless of ethnic background, we noticed that in all of our school visits, English was the foreign language of choice. Primary school children whose mothertongue was isiXhosa in Khayelitsha or Afrikaans in Clanwilliam were all being instructed in their mothertongue with some English songs and phrases gradually being introduced. In South Africa, the Department of Education has determined that learners must be taught in their first language until the age of nine years, or upon reaching the third grade. After this point, the learning of a second language can begin. Some educators and NGO administrators support the government’s recommendation, but not everyone agrees.
Among supporters of the ‘first-language-first’ position is Elizabeth Anderson, manager of the Capetown-based Centre for the Book. Like the Department, she advocates for monolingual instruction for primary school learners. Opponents of monolingual instruction argue that learners need to be introduced to English earlier. According to project evaluator Eric Schollar, “the critical issue is the fact that learners may become proficient in vernacular [the mothertongue] by the end of grade three, but then switch to learning everything in English from grade four—a prescription for the underperformance that we see throughout the system…What I am saying is that the policy is only workable if learners also become proficient in English by the time they start grade four” [4].
Our observations at an Afrikaans-speaking school in a rural area seem to corroborate Schollar’s claim. As I read to students from an English book about the 1994 elections entitled The Day Gogo Went to Vote by ANC member Elinor Barezat Sikulu, the sixth graders appeared to have had a very difficult time following, despite my slowed reading pace. When my partner led the discussion period, we were disheartened when their teacher was required to translate each of our questions into Afrikaans, and this method still failed to produce more answers. Taking shyness and our foreign American English accents into account, we expected to have received more feedback from the students. It did not appear to me that the students had been receiving full instruction in English, but this is understandable. No dedicated teacher would sacrifice the learning of her students by suddenly instructing in a language that was foreign to them, or to her, for that matter. As an aspiring teacher, I would do the same.
Based on my observations as a visitor, my research as a student and my intuitions as an educator, I believe that a sustained bilingual approach is the best method of achieving additive bilingualism. Beginning a second language at a later stage contradicts numerous literacy and psychological studies that claim greater cognitive abilities for second language learning at earlier ages.
To facilitate literacy in the mothertongue, government funding needs to be allocated for educational programs that focus on reading prior to age seven, the current age at which students begin school. For inspiration, South Africa should look to the examples set forth by peer countries who are striving for—and gradually succeeding at—alleviating the burdens that colonialism has left behind.
1. Penny Morgan, “Catalyst for Inclusion,” Mail and Guardian [South Africa] Vol 20, No 36.
2. “Languages of Instruction: Policy Implications for Education in South Africa,” IDRC (1997) <>.
3. “Languages of Instruction: Policy Implications for Education in South Africa,” IDRC (1997) <>.
4. Penny Morgan, “Thinking About the Language of Learning,” Mail and Guardian [South Africa] Vol 20, No 36.