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Indigenous languages are more than a constitutional right

| November 11, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Lebogang Montjane

Earlier this year, I had the honour of making a presentation to the ISASA Annual School First Additional Language Conference, which was held at Redhill School.

When planning what I should speak about at that conference, it seemed appropriate to share my personal linguistic journey as a South African who grew up in Johannesburg, a multilingual metropole. Having attended an ISASA member school, I ruminated on how our schools were teaching the home languages of 80% of South Africans, now that we are living in a democracy that is founded on inclusion.

A significant factor for the 1976 student liberation flashpoint was the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of teaching and learning for black African pupils. The cause of this uprising was the 1974 Afrikaans Medium Decree, which was to impose a 50% Afrikaans parity with English as the language of teaching and learning in the bantu education system. It was declared that Mathematics, Arithmetic and Social Studies must be taught in Afrikaans. General science, as well as practical subjects (such as Needlework, Wood- and Metalwork, Art and Agricultural Science), had to be taught in English. Mother tongue instruction was limited to Religious Instruction, Music and Physical Culture. As this decree illustrates, the indigenous languages of our country, other than Afrikaans, have long been marginalised and relegated to what were deemed narrow, culturally specific aspects of schooling.

Entrenched in the Constitution

Our Constitution, which was developed to right the wrongs of our past, recognised this shortcoming. This is why South Africa is unique in the world, having designated most of the spoken languages of our country as “official” in Chapter 1 of the Constitution, entitled Founding Principles. Section 6(2) of the Constitution states: “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” In my view, as often happens in South Africa, we continue to falter in the implementation of the “practical and positive measures” required by our Constitution. Why do I make this claim? It is a fact that English and Afrikaans continue to have significant support within the curriculum – especially English, which is widely used as the language of teaching and learning. Our failure to redress this linguistic status chasm may be in breach of the constitutional injunction established in section 6(4), which requires that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”. However, those who adopt the literal rule of statutory interpretation would argue that the constitutional duty is on government and not private bodies to take positive steps to redress historically marginalised languages.

IIAL compliance

As is often the case, when non-state entities fail to adopt important societal principles, government feels compelled to take action. In this instance, due to the neglect of South Africa’s indigenous languages, government has moved to force schools to teach African languages with the Incremental Introduction of African Languages (IIAL) policy. Some 21 years after democracy, schools are only now running to catch up and comply. The rationale often proffered for not offering any other African languages other than Afrikaans is that were it not for an overcrowded timetable, schools would find room to teach indigenous South African languages other than Afrikaans. Due to IIAL, the timetable can no longer be used as a justification for not teaching South African children the languages of their country.

Cognitive benefits

Beyond the obvious benefits of societal cohesion when people in a country speak each other’s languages, there are cognitive advantages to speaking more than one language. As the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) observed in its report entitled “Enhancing Learning of Children from Diverse Language Backgrounds: Mother Tongue-based Bilingual or Multilingual Education in the Early Years”: “Research has shown for some time that bilingual children typically develop certain types of cognitive flexibility and metalinguistic awareness earlier and better than their monolingual peers.”1 Since children enter schooling already speaking a language of their home, why do schools reject supporting them in these languages?

Compromising the mother tongue

Recently, whilst paging through Destiny magazine ( July issue, page 65), it was disconcerting to read that there is a perception among black African parents that their children must jettison their home language if they are to receive a sound education. “Middle-class parents are faced with the tough choice of compromising their mother tongues when placing their children in good schools. Such youngsters often find themselves pressurised to be multilingual.”2 Sadly, in practice, many South African schools only feel an obligation to linguistically support those children whose home languages are English or Afrikaans – in effect, disadvantaging the vast majority of South Africa’s children.

On my own educational journey, I faced a similar circumstance. I grew up in a home in which standard Sepedi and Sesotho were spoken. This meant that I knew that language has rules and structures. Even though I only learnt these home languages orally, at least I knew their spoken structure. That way, I could transfer those skills as I grappled to master the language of teaching and learning when I moved to a school in which English was the language of instruction. Since this was also the time of apartheid, my home languages were by law relegated to a secondary standing. With a rudimentary understanding of the English language, I was then expected not only to learn English at a home language level, I was also required to learn Afrikaans – a language completely unfamiliar to me and whose speakers I irregularly encountered. In fact, I generally only heard Afrikaans spoken when my family was stopped at police roadblocks.

Linguistic structure important

Some years after our Constitution required that all 11 official languages be given equal esteem, the majority of South Africa’s children are still expected to disregard their home languages when entering the school system. Compounding the disadvantage this places on them, in urban areas such as Gauteng, many children do not speak a language. Rather, they speak an urban creole. They are thus unfamiliar with standard language structure.

This linguistic deficit can only be addressed if children are given support in their home language in order that they have transferrable linguistic skills to learn the dominant language of teaching and learning, English. Due to its worldwide use, English does provide great advantage to those who can master it. In the singular pursuit of getting children proficient in English, too many parents and educators discount or ignore first language acquisition. As the UNESCO report cautions:
There is a common misconception that young children can acquire a language faster than older children. As Lightbown (2008) has stressed, becoming completely fluent in a second language is not, as many have claimed, “easy as pie”, but rather, takes several years. Thus, it is a mistake to assume that providing day-care or preschool programmes in a second language is sufficient to prepare children for academic success in that language. Children who have this exposure may be better prepared for school, but will still need ongoing support to acquire sufficient proficiency in [the second language] to succeed in academic subjects, and they will need support to continue to develop [the first language].3

Thus, even if this is only for educative reasons, South Africa’s schools must appreciate that teaching indigenous languages (other than Afrikaans) at a scholastic level prepares
children better school success.

Schools limit choice

Of course, the challenge of having so many official languages must not be underestimated. Particularly in Gauteng, many schools default to the position that if they are going to offer an African language other than Afrikaans, that language will be isiZulu – the rationale being that isiZulu is the largest spoken language in the country. But the Constitution does not say that the only African language that must receive “practical and positive measures to elevate [its] status” must be the most widely spoken language in the country. As we all know with languages, related languages are grouped. In South Africa, there are two main groups of indigenous languages: Nguniand Sotho- based languages. In polyglot Gauteng, why should schools deny children from the Sotho group of languages a related language that they can master and from which they can then transfer those skills to the language of teaching and learning? Even now, in my daily life, the vast majority of the spoken languages that I interact with are Sotho- and Ngunibased languages as well, of course, ever-dominant English.

Multilingualism and social cohesion

Returning to the desirability of social cohesion, at the recent Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) conference in Cape Town, Dr Max Price, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, was questioned on how independent schools could better prepare their students for their futures. His response was that our schools must teach marginalised African languages to all their pupils. In his view, part of the reason for the disruption currently taking place at our universities is that students coming from schools such as ISASA member schools have not always been given an education that is aligned to the cultural realities of their country. Graduates of ISASA schools, irrespective of race, find it difficult to relate to their South African peers at university, culturally and linguistically, because many are unable to converse in South Africa’s indigenous languages.

For the future of our children and the country, South African schools need to align themselves more proactively with our country’s constitutional values. Teaching South Africa’s indigenous languages is an educational and national imperative.


1. Ball, J. (2011) “Enhancing Learning of Children from Diverse Language Backgrounds: Mother Tongue-based Bilingual or Multilingual Education in the Early Years”, UNESCO Education Sector, Available at:, p. 19.
2. Mbokazi, A. Tongue-Twisters, p. 65.
3. Ball, J. (2011) op. cit., p. 1.

Category: Summer 2016

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