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Mother-tongue instruction at the crossroads

| March 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Nompumelelo Thabethe and Nontobeko Buthelezi

It has emerged that under the revised school curriculum in South Africa, many former model C schools1 are scrapping African languages to accommodate English as the first language and Afrikaans as the required additional language subject of study.

As expressed in the media nationwide,2 this is an unfortunate development. One’s language is a powerful tool for self-expression and remains instrumental in facilitating social cohesion. It is not just a mere subject in the school curriculum, but is one of the means to reconstruct an inclusive education that responds to the diverse needs of a nation. Denying children their human right to speak their mother tongue not only forces them to think in a foreign language, but also silences them and distorts their historical identity.

Relevance of local African languages questioned?

The critical role of indigenous and/or local languages has become a ‘hot topic’ in the South African education community; however, it is rarely realised in practice. These writers, for example, frequently hear these utterances: “Are local African languages still relevant in the information age?”

“Do our children still need to speak local African languages in a multiracial and multicultural society?”

“Because English is the international language, should we not solely focus on developing it at schools?”

“What value can indigenous languages add in the age of globalisation?”

“Isn’t it more critical for children to be fluent in English than any other language?”

These and many related questions give rise to other pertinent concerns regarding who decides what is relevant within the family, one’s local community, our schools and the international arena. These are political questions, and the latest consequences of revisions made to the national school curriculum are a stark reminder that curriculum developments are neither neutral nor objective.

During the 1976 Soweto uprisings,3 black learners lost their lives fighting for the right to be taught in their own home languages. One notes with great concern that the streamlined curriculum, if misconstrued by officials, schools and parents, is likely to undo the achievements of the past 35 years.

The legacy of apartheid distorts reality

Given an opportunity to choose an additional subject of study for their children, it emerges that increasing numbers of black African parents are choosing Afrikaans over their own mother tongues. This begs the question: why do people despise their mother tongue, despite so much transformation and identity awareness in the democratic South Africa? Is this partly due to the legacy of apartheid, which equated fluency in English and Afrikaans with intelligence and excellence, even though research has shown absolutely no causal link? It is our opinion that the assumption that learners who have mastered English and Afrikaans are better off than those who have mastered local African languages such as isiZulu, is a South African condition that is both misinformed and problematic.

There is a need to raise people’s consciousness with regard to the role and place of African languages in society. We can learn from the example of the FIFA World Cup™, hosted by South Africa in 2010, which offered a glimpse of what diversity in action looks like. Soccer coaches from around the world were interviewed in their mother tongue. Although the German coach could not express himself in English, he confidently communicated his message in his local dialect, without incurring any disrespect.

These writers commonly hear parents asking: “How will a learner who has mastered isiZulu and Xhosa access worthwhile job opportunities?” Afrikaans-speaking people are in the minority in South Africa, but their pride in their mother tongue is well-documented. So why are black Africans not asking: “How will a learner who has mastered Afrikaans access worthy job opportunities?” To reflect on this point another way, consider those whose mother tongue is Mandarin Chinese, who are rapidly controlling more and more of the globe’s economic hubs.

Ironic that we need to remember we are African

We could present many other examples, for the more we talk to parents, the more we see that they persist in equating academic competence, economic success and social superiority with fluency in English.

We find it ironic that after our long African struggle to be free, it should be necessary to remind parents that here on the southernmost tip of the continent, we are not Europeans. We therefore call for the indigenisation of the school curriculum, to align it with the southern African experience.

Research abounds to suggest that learning other tongues offers people the option to form rich relationships across the racial and cultural spectrum while remaining grounded in their own cultures and traditions, gives significant meaning to issues of diversity and history, democratises the use of language, and allows all languages to develop in a natural manner.4 It is in these contexts that Vijay Reddy5 asserts that it is important for children from English and Afrikaans homes to learn an African language in order to contribute to social cohesion. This kind of diversity in language acquisition offers the possibility of moving into the world of the ‘other’, and ultimately provides space to defy dominant paradigms in our being in the world.

So, who benefits from school curriculum reform?

If we agree that one’s language has many benefits for one’s intellectual, psychological and personal development, how should schools, as centres of learning and development, respond to the ‘hidden curriculum’6 of a system that seems to seek to marginalise and alienate people from their historical roots or origins in the name of globalisation? Meaningful debate when re-crafting the curriculum requires critical thinking regarding the underlying factors and assumptions.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that one cannot give an honest account of Africa without reflecting on the impact of colonisation and apartheid in South Africa. The issue of language is intrinsically linked to issues of power, class and race. Our challenge as policy makers, officials, school governing bodies, parents and educators who are committed to social justice is to challenge the status quo consistently.


1. In the apartheid years, there was a separate government department for
white children’s schools, black children’s schools and coloured children’s
schools. The three departments had different funding available, different
resources at their disposal and issued different examinations. The House
of Representatives (HOR) was the department that handled coloured
children’s schooling, the Department of Education and Training (DET)
handled black children’s schooling, and the white children’s schools were
known as model C schools. To this day, former Model C schools still
typically have the best facilities, best teachers and best educational
opportunities for children. (Source:

2. See, for example, Buthelezi, M. (2012) ‘Our Children Must be Able to
Speak English’, available at:
Govender, P. (2012) ‘Xhosa, Zulu Being Axed at State Schools’, available
at: local/2012/01/22/xhosa-zulu-being-axedat-

3. The day 16 June 1976 is infamous in South Africa’s history. On this day,
thousands of black schoolchildren marched through the streets of Soweto,
defying the apartheid regime that forced them to learn in Afrikaans. See,
for example, a/Soweto-

4. See, for example, Talkington, J. (2009) ‘Why Children Need to Learn
Foreign Languages’, available at:

Category: Autumn 2012

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