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Mother tongue education provides essential basis for sound education
Author: Dr Michael le Cordeur
Published: 20/02/2014

​​​The principle that children should be taught in their mother tongue for at least the first six years of their schooling life, is universally acknowledged. But sadly, twenty years on from our birth as the 'rainbow nation', we have still not resolved the issues that hamper delivery of mother tongue instruction to primary school children across South Africa.

On International Mother Language Day the question remains: Can, and will we ever solve this crisis? 

Internationally, the 1996 Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities proposed that "in primary school, the curriculum should ideally be taught in the minority language (mother tongue)."  Our own Constitution unambiguously states that our eleven official languages should all enjoy parity of esteem and that "everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable".

Nearly 8 years ago the former National Education Minister, Naledi Pandor, acknowledged that "Study in the mother tongue should introduce a diversity of learning opportunities that have been unavailable in South Africa in the past. The policy recognises that past policy and practice has disadvantaged millions of children and it also promotes the effective learning and teaching of the previously neglected indigenous languages of South Africa."

Why under these circumstances, have we made so little progress with the implementation of mother tongue education for our children - and why are the many schools that continue to provide it under such pressure?

At the heart of the problem is the belief held by most black South Africans that their home languages are of subsidiary educational value. In the absence of the government adequately communicating the benefits of delivering foundation skills to primary school children in their mother tongue, many capable children embark on primary school learning in a language that they do not understand - and that their teachers often cannot speak properly. 

The unwitting result, despite the well-meaning intentions of parents, is that these young children go through the schooling system and emerge with cognitive development that may be seriously impaired. Naturally the social problems these children have to face become exceedingly challenging and disadvantageous to their future success.

Mother tongue education at primary school level provides an essential basis for sound education at higher levels. The challenge is for the government to commit more towards engaging parents and gaining their confidence and trust that their children will receive a better education if they are taught - at least at primary school - in a language that they can understand.  

Dr Le Cordeur is  the Chairperson of the Afrikaanse Taalraad (ATR) and the Western Cape Language Committee. He is also a lecturer in Afrikaans Education at SU where he manages the B.Ed Programme.