Proposed Shift To Teaching In African Languages In Schools 

In a recent Q&A, Minister of Education, Angie Motsheka, stated that the roll-out of mother-tongue as a basis for teaching and learning would go ahead.

How Does Mother Tongue Impact On Language Learning?

When learning things for the first time, it is much easier to grasp a concept when being taught in your home language. Trying to learn new things in a second language that you are unfamiliar with makes learning much harder. 

This becomes even more difficult when the mother tongue and the second language have no similarities. This makes learning the new language more difficult, as the structure and grammar are different, so there are no similarities to help the learning process. 

How Does Language Affect Education In South Africa?

The language of teaching and learning in South Africa has been either English or Afrikaans since apartheid. When apartheid ended, there was a movement to bring African languages into school as a way to keep them alive.

This was successful to a certain extent, but after some years it became apparent that African languages were still dying out rather than being reincorporated. This prompted a movement to bring teaching in the mother tongue into more schools. 

How Does Language Barrier Affect Teaching And Learning?

The language barrier is the term used to explain how some languages do not have direct translations of certain words. There are many examples of this, such as the Italian word “Culcaccino”, which is the Italian word for the stain left on a wooden table by a glass of cold water. There is no word for this in English. 

The difficulty of having no direct translation is that trying to learn in a language that does not have translations for some of your words, or that has words that cannot be translated into your language, creates a lack of understanding. 

It makes learning concepts very difficult when you have to first learn the word for it, with no reference for it in your own language. An example of this is that learning the word for “table” in another language is easy because you already know what a table is. Learning a new word for a table is easy. 

However, it is hard to learn a new word in a different language that you have no translation for because you have no basis of knowledge for it. This can often be made more difficult when idioms are used in teaching material. 

“Teaching a fish to ride a bicycle” is a common phrase in English, and is used to describe something as pointless or silly. While there may be translations for the words “pointless” or “silly”, idioms very rarely make sense when translated into another language. 

How Can Parents Help To Overcome Language Barriers?

The best way to help overcome language barriers is to teach in both languages from a young age. This way, children get used to hearing both languages and learning in both languages. 

When parents begin to teach their children about idioms in the home, they can explain how it works in one language but not the other. This way children are already used to the idea of languages not being completely translatable, and they can know how to learn in each language. 

Are Mother Tongue And Native Language The Same Thing?

No, mother tongue and native language are not necessarily the same thing. “Native language” refers to the language of an area. “Mother tongue” refers to your home language, the language you speak to your family. 

Usually these are the same, however they can be different, and this is for people who are bi- or multilingual. 

For example, if your family is Zulu, but you live in Johannesburg, you will probably speak isiZulu, Afrikaans, and English. This means that your Native language is English or Afrikaans, but your Mother tongue would be isiZulu. 

Eastern Cape Language Study

A study was conducted in the Eastern Cape in three rural schools. This study was done to see how learning in the mother tongue would affect students’ results. 

The schools were chosen based on proximity to participating researchers and an area where isiXhosa was the home language spoken by all residents. 

There were many challenges faced, and many areas where provision was not made. One of the first and biggest problems was the fact that teaching materials are not available in isiXhosa. Nearly all teaching material is published and printed in English only.

The lack of materials available to learn from in isiXhosa made teaching in the language very difficult because learners were looking at the English textbooks while teachers were trying to teach in isiXhosa. This created a lack of continuity in the information. 

The next problem that was encountered was the fact that many learners arrive at school already knowing numbers in English. The isiXhosa words for numbers are much longer and more difficult to spell, such as ‘Zintlanu’ which is the isiXhosa word for five. Because of this, learners often chose to speak English when doing Maths or anything involving numbers. 

There was also the issue of the lack of continuity between languages in things such as Mathematics. Mathematical terms often do not have an isiXhosa translation, which means that regardless of the language of teaching, the Mathematical terms must be taught in the language they are written in because there is no isiXhosa word for them. 

This problem is made worse by the fact that the teachers are not trained to teach in isiXhosa, nor are they trained in translation. Most teachers are trained to teach in English, and the structure is very different to when teaching in isiXhosa. 

Learners cannot be expected to fully grasp concepts that their teachers cannot fully explain in isiXhosa. Teachers need to first be trained to teach in the language, and teaching materials must be provided in the language before any expectations can be placed on learners. 

What Does This Mean For The Proposed Language Shift?

The issues faced in the language study conducted in the Eastern Cape will need to be addressed before the roll-out can continue. 

While the idea to teach and examine in the mother tongue is an excellent one, the study shows some glaring missteps in the execution of the idea. However, improving the language system in education could be a major step in the right direction for South Africa if done right.

What Have We Learned?

Parents will play a huge role in the success or lack thereof in introducing teaching in the mother tongue. The language barrier will be one of the biggest issues to overcome in this process. 

Mother tongue and native language are not necessarily the same. The study done in the Eastern Cape was a large learning experience for the idea of mother tongue as teaching languages. There are many problems to overcome before teaching in mother tongues can be effective. 

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