Mother tongue instruction

Topics: Language, Language education, Education Pages: 25 (4800 words) Published: April 30, 2014

Mother-tongue Education in South Africa

- Andrew Foley


The question of mother-tongue education in South Africa remains a vexed one. On the one hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to receive education in their mother-tongue, if they so wish. On the other hand, there are some very real difficulties involved in the implementation of this ideal. The purpose of this paper is to clarify what these difficulties are, and then to suggest what needs to be done to overcome them. The intention is neither to argue for or against the notion of mother-tongue education in the South African context, nor to consider whether its implementation is practically possible, but simply to spell out what courses of action need to be undertaken if the idea is to be seriously pursued.


The South African Constitution guarantees learners the right to receive education in the language of their choice1. Most current research suggests that learners entering school are able to learn best through their mother-tongue, and that a second language (such as English) is more easily acquired if the learner already has a firm grasp of his/her home language. Furthermore, the poor throughput rates in South African schools at the moment, where barely a quarter of African language learners who enter the schooling system are likely to reach Matric2, seems to indicate that the current practice of using English as the initial language of learning and teaching is at least one contributing factor to this problem.

1 This right is, however, qualified by the consideration of reasonable practicability, which is defined in the Language in Education Policy of 1997 as occuring when 40 learners in a particular grade in a primary school, or 35 learners in a particular grade in a secondary school, demand to be taught in their mother tongue. 2 As a number of newspapers reported, of the number of learners who entered Grade 1 in 1994 only 21.9% wrote the 2005 Matric examination. Even taking into account such factors as the repetition of grades or learners leaving to study at FET Colleges, the percentage cannot be much higher than 25%.

For some years now, educationists have proposed that African language learners should be taught in their mother-tongue for at least the first three years of school before switching over to English. More recently, the Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, speaking at a Language Policy conference at the end of 2006, intimated that this initial period of mother-tongue instruction would be extended to six years, that is, both the Foundation Phase (Grades 1 to 3) and the Intermediate Phase (Grades 4 to 6).

If this proposal is to be taken seriously, there are a number of questions which need to be clarified and considered. The rest of this paper will be devoted to this task. These questions may be divided into four main headings, although, as will become evident, there is much overlap between them: language development, curriculum development, teacher education and school implementation.

Language Development

The nine official African languages are certainly able to function as media of communication at such levels as interpersonal conversation, narrative and cultural practice. As they currently exist, however, the standard written forms of the languages have not yet been developed to the point where they are able to carry academic discourse effectively and therefore function as full-fledged languages of learning and teaching, even at the Foundation Phase. For the most part, they are based on particular rural dialects in conservative contexts, having been standardised in the nineteenth century by missionaries for such specific purposes as proselytisation, and later by the apartheid era Language Boards at least partly as a mechanism of social control. As such, these standard written forms remain in many ways archaic, limited and...

References: Baker, Colin. 2006. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (4th edition).
Cummins, Jim. 2000. Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire.
Department of Education. 1997. Norms and Standards Regarding Language Policy; Language in Education Policy. Government Gazette No.685, 9 May.
Mackey, William F. 1992. Mother Tongues, Other Tongues and Vehicular Languages.
Metcalfe, Mary. 2007. In Search of Quality Schooling for All. Mail & Guardian (Getting
Ahead) January 26 to February 1:4-5.
Pandor, Naledi. 2006. Language Issues and Challenges (opening address at the Language Policy Implementation in HEIs Conference, Pretoria, 5 October. Available at
Schuring, Gerhard K. 1993. Language and Education in South Africa: a policy study.
Webb, Vic, Deumert, Ana and Lepota, Biki (eds). 2005. The Standardisation of African
Languages in South Africa
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