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Lessons in learning: Why English is not enough

This International Mother Tongue Day, Dr Pamela Maseko, Senior Lecturer at the School of Language in African Languages Studies at the Rhodes University in Grahamstown, analyses the role of multilingualism in education.

We all learn better when we understand what the teacher says and the language we understand best, in normal situations, is, of course, our mother tongue.

In our context, mother tongue refers to the language that is learnt at home, from birth. The language, or languages children grow up with, are surrounded by, inside and outside of school, and use to express themselves with. It also is the language through which cognitive abilities are formed and perfected.

Seen from this perspective, it is easy to see that language – especially the one/s you grew up speaking – carry worth. But, in South Africa, the value, suitability and desirability of African languages to provide sociocultural, cognitive and economic benefits to those who speak them as mother tongues, is unjustifiably challenged. In formal learning contexts, children speaking indigenous South African languages are made to switch from their mother tongue to English as early as the third year of schooling.

The choice of English as a language of learning and teaching, especially for speakers of languages other than English, is linked to issues of practicality: English is historically the language of academic discourse in South Africa, and seen as a global language presenting opportunities for economic and social empowerment.

But arguments for English, and the perceived benefits for African language speakers switching over to English early, are a delusion. Research scholars like the late Neville Alexander, illustrate that while English is desirable, it is not as attainable as we may think. Despite the early switch from mother tongue to English, children do not achieve the expected English literacy levels when they reach higher education, and this in turn impacts on their future prospects for a continued education and entrance to the job market.

If we consider that a high level knowledge of mother tongue strongly determines a child’s overall literacy development, and that a deeper understanding of a second language is gained if mother tongue is maintained while learning another language, there is no debate that we need to relook at the role of mother tongue in education. It also seems clear that the solution lies not only in either-or answers, but in parallel situations where children are taught in English as well as African languages.

African language speakers must become the producers and consumers of knowledge in learning processes where, as with English speakers, home language is a reservoir from which to draw context for new information and synthesize further information.

This is, arguably, how bilingualism and multilingualism is developed and one need not look further than the English-Afrikaans bilingual policy during the past political dispensation for affirmation. What it needs now is to be extended.

There is some hope. Professor Esther Ramani and colleague Michael Joseph have pioneered the development of a fully bilingual English-Sesotho sa Leboa degree at the University of Limpopo. The Rhodes University African Languages Studies Section in the School of Languages is implementing bilingual language studies (isiXhosa-English), and literacy promotion and awareness campaigns such the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation and the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign - which is producing and distributing bilingual and mother tongue stories and other literacy materials for children and caregivers nationwide. Such initiatives contribute to African language development and their literacy promotion for their speakers.

Let us keep in mind that the way we value language has direct impact on human development and social transformation. To undermine a child’s mother tongue means not only devaluing languages other than English as an expression of identity, culture and heritage, but stifling the growth of our nation.


Originally published in The Sowetan on 17 February 2015.

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