In 2018, in an article entitled The importance of African languages by Somikazi Deyi – a lecturer in the Department of African languages at the University of Cape Town, School of Languages and Literatures – expressed the importance of mother tongue education. Deyi said:
Language is not just a series of words, but includes certain nuances that emerge in the form of idioms, metaphors and euphemisms, as well as praises. Language is therefore tied intrinsically to a sense of belonging, which is in turn linked to society and its values.
In a country where our differences have so often divided us, our school, Nova Pioneer Paulshof, is always looking for tangible opportunities to acknowledge the spectrum of who we are.
Language has historically been a divisive tool in education, used to disempower, to segregate, and to alienate children from access to quality education. One simply needs to reflect on the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising to realise how powerful a tool language is in creating equitable access to education. In modern day South Africa, we still struggle with classism and bias based on people’s accents when they speak in English.
As schools serving children on the African continent, it is our responsibility to work to create a cohesive society, and the acknowledgement of our language diversity is one of many ways we can make this possible for our learners.
At Nova Pioneer Paulshof, in social settings and break times, we do not prohibit students from speaking in their mother tongue. Rather, we seek to empower our students by explaining to them that none of us should allow children of differing languages to feel excluded from a social group.
While encouraging a multiplicity of languages is more complex than simply saying everyone must speak English, it is much more likely to bring about social cohesion in the long-term.
Parents an integral part of the school
With all this in mind, our school launched our first Love Your Mother Tongue (LYMT) Week in 2019. During LYMT Week, parents can book a slot to visit their child’s class during the Morning Meeting, which is the first half hour of the day. During this time, parents are invited to read a story, teach the children a song, or recite a poem in their mother tongue. During COVID-19, parents have been able to join via Zoom.
Since starting LYMT Week, we have been treated to the most rewarding recognition of who we are as a nation. Staff, children and parents have all celebrated various indigenous South African languages, Asian languages, languages from the Middle East, as well languages from throughout Africa, through music, poetry and storytelling.
We host this event each term in an effort to normalise the differences that make us who we are. Operationally, this is a very simple event, which requires no changes to our timetable, and is facilitated with a simple booking form.
While it is very little work to organise, the power and impact of it is huge. It is, however, important to be aware that the true shift does not just come from a termly event, but from interrogating our policies about language, and language diversity, both formal and informal.
At Nova Pioneer Paulshof we are mindful that language and culture sharing should be happening every day of the year. We should continue to strive to create cohesion through our everyday actions and daily acknowledgement of our differences, or else events like this will remain hollow and will be unable to affect the change we need to see in our society.