In a multilingual society like many in Africa, most children learn more than one language – but it’s important that they get a good grounding in their mother tongue before learning to speak other languages.

In many countries around the world more than one language is spoken. In Botswana, English and Setswana are the predominant languages but more than 20 others are also spoken. Multiple languages are spoken in Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland. Other countries with many languages include India, China and Malaysia, to name a few. In many of these countries children grow up learning more than one language, which is seen as beneficial by educators and linguists – but only if they are fluent in their mother tongue before learning other languages. A case in point is South Africa, where in 1976 the apartheid government ruled that only English and Afrikaans should be used in schools. ‘This led to the devaluing of African languages,’ says Sally Mills, senior communications officer at the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, which works with communities to cultivate and promote a culture of reading in mother tongues.

‘Many parents want their children to be fluent in English because it is seen as the language of business and commerce,’ says Mills. ‘What they perhaps do not realise is that children who have a strong foundation of language in their mother tongue are better able to learn a second language.’ While many children might think it’s ‘cool’ to speak English, parents should encourage a strong grounding in their home language before they start school. Children who don’t have a good understanding of their home language often struggle to understand some of the complex concepts taught at school. ‘Without spending the necessary time building children’s home- language literacy skills,’ says Mills, ‘they are less likely to succeed in school. This is the crisis South Africa is currently facing, with 78% of Grade 4 children being unable to read really well in their home language or any other.’

Languages are also an essential tool in shaping a child’s identity. ‘Language is intrinsically linked to identity and a sense of belonging,’ says Mills. ‘Not only do children need to be engaged with books and stories in languages they understand, they also need to be able to see themselves in the stories they read.’ She adds that reading for pleasure also helps children achieve better results at school. ‘Research shows that children who read for pleasure do better in the classroom, not only in language subjects, but across the curriculum.’

The importance of preserving and promoting mother tongues became a global mission in 2000, when the United Nations introduced International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated on 21 February. In 2003 the SA Department of Arts and Culture introduced the National Language Policy, with the aim of keeping African languages alive beyond just the home. While there is still a lot of work to be done by government departments and schools, it falls on parents to help their children understand and love their mother tongue. ‘Parents should be reading and sharing stories with children from birth,’ says Mills. ‘The fastest period of brain development occurs between birth and the age of three. During this time, not only is the stage set for future learning and intellectual success, but for emotional wellbeing too. This is because reading aloud, and sharing books and stories with children, builds key language and literacy skills and provides an opportunity for caregivers and children to bond. It also creates a positive association for children when it comes to books.’ So, the message is clear. Take every opportunity to read to your children and have conversations with them in their home language. Your reward will be confident children who are eager to learn, not just languages but their other school subjects too.

  • On the Nal’ibali website – nalibali.org – you can find written and audio stories in several languages.
  • The children’s book, Mpumi’s Magic Beads, is available in all official South African languages.
  • toyswithroots.co.za has a selection of isiZulu children’s books.

WHY MOTHER TONGUE MATTERS WHY MOTHER TONGUE MATTERS Reviewed by Zandile Xabendlini on January 10, 2019 Rating: 5
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