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Cultivating a reading culture is key to the country’s future

It's International Translation Day, and so it is an appropriate day on which to ask:

Why is literacy important?

The answer is simple: We will never succeed economically, or as a society, if we are not literate. Literacy remains the key to unlocking South Africa’s success and yet both numerical and linguistic literacy continue to evade us. As a multilingual, multicultural society, social cohesion and deep learning can happen only if we create a plethora of “literacies” in many tongues. All children and adults need to understand what they are listening to or reading for it to be meaningful and enjoyable. For children, being read to in their own language is an especially crucial part of developing literacy. Ordinarily, it is the mother tongue that facilitates the best cognition and allows for the effective transfer of concepts and knowledge and language that children learn in one language to another one – especially important in a country where many children change their language of instruction early on in their school careers. With a solid foundation in their mother tongues, all learning becomes easier for children; yet nearly 90 percent of South Africa’s children have no reading material at home, and according to the PILS 2011 report: “South African Grade 4 learners, particularly those tested in African languages, achieved well below the international centre point.”

It is in the home and in the early foundation phase where literacy should really begin. Research shows that the phase of development from birth to six is critical to reading development in the school years. At best, however, one is lucky if one may find an old copy of Bona, Huisgenoot or You magazine, and perhaps a copy of the Bible (in the language of choice) in the average South African home. Furthermore, only about 5 percent of parents read to their children. This is a worrying state of affairs given that to behave like and become readers, children need to see adults close to them reading themselves.

 "It is in the home where literacy should really begin"

All this speaks to the lack of a reading culture in our society, which directly affects literacy levels. Reading and literacy come in many forms. I remember as a child, listening to the Jet Jungle radio programme and being inspired by the characters, much in the same way that the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign is now doing through its multilingual story slots on SABC public broadcast stations in all 11 official languages. And we are no longer restricted to just the airwaves. Stories can now be shared via cellphones, another platform Nal’ibali is utilising to provide stories in various languages to help bring the power of stories into every home. Parents should encourage their children to partake in reading and listening through all forms of contemporary media. These early reading experiences contributed enormously to my being literate and no doubt growing up to be a contemporary author. But we also need to give adults and families more quality material to read in their mother tongues so they can take up their duty as interactive reading role models with their kids.

This Translation Day we need to remember that what is important now in our multilingual environment is that we allow our creative works to be translated into many languages. Examples include the work of the Siyagruva Series of youth novels published by David Philip/New Africa Books, with translations supported by Praesa (The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa), which drives the Nal’ibali campaign as well as my own novel, Emthonjeni, reworked into English as Take me to the River and soon to be rereleased in both Xhosa and English.

"Illiteracy and ignorance are much more expensive

than creating a literate youth"

Translation is one of the keys to the intellectualisation of all our languages, particularly the previously marginalised African languages. We need to translate from English into African languages as well as from one African language to another. This will open up a world of multicultural stories for our young readers and encourage parents to read to their children in whatever language they understand best. But creating such multilingual texts is no easy task and that is why I applaud initiatives like Nal’ibali, but also call on universities to grow graduate students who are sensitive to multilingual issues in education, and encourage bookshops to stock and sell books translated into and from various languages. We need to formalise multilingual reading and literacy competitions to encourage literacy in the mother tongue as well as in English, in a linguistically inclusive manner. This requires the co-ordination of readers, writers, parents, bookshops, the publishing industry and the Department of Basic Education.

This must be a national imperative if the tide of illiteracy is to be turned around. We need to understand, as a nation, that illiteracy and ignorance are much more expensive in the long run than creating a literate youth.


Professor Kaschula holds the NRF SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education. He is professor of African language studies in the school of languages at Rhodes University and the author of a number of works in Xhosa and English.


This article was originally published in the Cape Times on 29/09/2014

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