Lessons in the Mother TongueBy Thandi Mkhatshwa

Lessons in the Mother Tongue

By Thandi Mkhatshwa

Published on Thu, Jun 25 2009 by Thandi Mkhatshwa
South Africa--In 1976, June 16, students in Soweto protested against the apartheid government for enforcing the use of Afrikaans as the primary medium of instruction in black schools.  This method was designed as a barrier to keep black people from obtaining necessary skills for highly ranked jobs, since English is the most universal language. The students’ determination to resist the law led to the bloody Soweto uprising.

The end of apartheid in 1994 gave the new democratic government the power to recognize all eleven official languages in South Africa, with English used as the primary medium of instruction.  Despite the change in the law, to this day, the issue of language in schools is still the subject of debate in South Africa. 

Section 29(2) of South African constitution states, “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public institution where education is reasonable.”
Today, there has been talk of the possibility of the government passing a rule to educate all students in their first language, with the intention to promote indigenous languages.
Currently in South Africa, a black child generally experiences education from the first through the forth grade in his or her mother tongue. Starting in the fifth grade, teachers are supposed to teach all subjects using English as a medium of instruction. Students continue their mother tongue as a single course (their “first language” course). Instead, many teachers are unofficially translating lessons into their students’ mother tongue.

It’s challenging for students who don’t speak English at home to start learning all the subjects in their second (or often third) language. Some argue that when students switch from their mother tongue after forth grade to English as the language of instruction, it often leads to high rates of failure and dropouts.
The failure and dropouts rate have caused a heated debate among South Africans. Some say that mother tongue, as the language of instruction, would improve matriculation results. Others say that the language of instruction is not the reason behind poor grades.
“Research shows that twelve million South Africans are illiterate and that twenty million others, mostly learners, are not fluent readers in any language,” reports the South African Department of language and Linguistics.

Some parents are blaming teachers for their children’s unfruitful education. Many go as far as saying the teachers are not qualified enough. “They too, can’t speak proper English,” says Dolly, a mother of two.
According to the Economist (2001), English is the third 3rd most spoken language in the world and first language of 380 million people speak English as their second language.
Generally, people need to be fluent in English to apply for jobs and university education. This has cause many students to question their linguistic skills. “I can’t speak in public with my broken English,” admits Norman, a grade 12 pupil.  “Never mind an interview.”  The opinion of a local Tintswalo high school student is that the government is using the issue of mother tongue in school as a way to prove a point to white people. “They want to show the white people that black populations owns this country. The government, he explained further, needs to start thinking about the future of the students, not their ego,” stressed Norman.



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