Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Multilingual education enhances cognitive development, academic achievement
Author: Nhlanhla Mpofu
Published: 21/02/2024

​​International Mother Language Day is celebrated annually on 21 February. In an opinion piece for the Daily Maverick, Prof Nhlanhla Mpofu from the Department of Curriculum Studies writes that multilingual education has significant cognitive, academic and socio-cultural benefits.

  • ​Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Nhlanhla Mpofu*

South Africa is blessed with a rich array of tongues and dialects weaving through the narratives of its people. From the rolling cadences of Sepedi to the lyrical rhythms of isiXhosa, each language carries with it a unique cultural heritage and identity.

The country's linguistic diversity is a source of pride and complexity. It reflects centuries of intertwined histories, traditions, and migrations, giving rise to a kaleidoscope of languages and dialects spoken across the nation. Yet, within the realm of formal education, the journey of multilingualism often encounters hurdles and hesitations, despite the evident benefits it offers.

As someone who navigates five languages with varying proficiency, I am intimately acquainted with the profound impact of linguistic diversity on personal and educational development. My journey began with isiNdebele, my mother tongue, which not only shaped my earliest interactions with the world but also formed a deep bond with my mother. Together, we explored the pages of isiNdebele and isiZulu literature, traversing the moral landscapes painted by authors like Ndabezinhle Sibanda Sigogo, Cyril Lincoln Sibusiso Nyembezi, and Barbara Makhalisa.

These shared moments nurtured not only language skills but also cultural understanding and familial connection. While the streets of eMakhandeni, my childhood neighbourhood, became the classroom for my immersion in ChiShona. Here, I found myself conversing in ChiShona with friends who had recently relocated from Harare and were unfamiliar with isiNdebele.

Formal education further enriched my linguistic repertoire under the guidance of dedicated educators such as Mrs Bonomali, Dr Malusi Ngwenya, Mrs Chigweshe, and Prof Faith Mkwesha. Through their mentorship, I was exposed to a diverse array of literary works spanning from the adolescent adventures of Nancy Drew as well as the  Hardy Boys, to the African pacesetters to timeless classics such as “Hamlet," “So Long a Letter", “Twelfth Night", “Far from the Madding Crowd", “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born", “The Devil on the Cross", and “Pride and Prejudice".  Each encounter with a new language or literary tradition expanded my horizons and deepened my appreciation for linguistic diversity.

Professional endeavours also propelled my linguistic journey, as I honed my proficiency in languages like isiSwati and Swahili to better connect with colleagues and communities. These narratives of multilingualism in my life extend beyond mere functional utility; they encapsulate the beauty of human interaction and communication.

Yet, amidst these enriching experiences, a stark reality emerged – English stood as the privileged language of academia and professional discourse. This phenomenon is not unique to my own experience; rather, it reflects broader systemic biases within educational frameworks.

Despite research indicating the cognitive and socio-cultural benefits of multilingual pedagogy, hesitancy persists in its integration into educational systems. This reluctance stems from various factors, including entrenched educational policies, logistical challenges, and misconceptions about the efficacy of multilingual education. However, clinging to monolingual paradigms undermines the linguistic diversity inherent in South Africa and perpetuates inequalities within the education system.

On International Mother Language Day (21 February), it is important to emphasise that embracing multilingual pedagogy is not merely a matter of linguistic inclusivity; it is a decolonial stance that aligns with the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education. It is, therefore, fitting that the 2024 theme is “Multilingual education – a pillar of learning and intergenerational learning". By valuing and affirming learners' linguistic identities, educators can create more equitable and empowering learning environments. Research suggests that incorporating students' native languages into the curriculum enhances cognitive development, academic achievement, and overall engagement.

The reluctance to adopt multilingual pedagogy can be attributed to political, economic, and practical concerns. Politically, there may be concerns about the perceived dominance of certain languages over others, particularly in the context of South Africa's complex history of colonialism and apartheid. Language has often been a sensitive and contentious issue, with tensions arising from debates about which languages should be prioritised in education. The fear of exacerbating linguistic inequalities or sparking cultural tensions may lead policymakers to hesitate in implementing multilingual pedagogy.

Economically, there may be concerns about the costs associated with implementing multilingual education programmes. Developing and maintaining resources such as textbooks, teaching materials, and initial teacher programmes in multiple languages can be expensive. In a country with limited financial resources and competing educational priorities, the financial feasibility of multilingual pedagogy may be called into question.

Practically, there may be logistical challenges involved in implementing multilingual education effectively. These challenges can include finding qualified teachers proficient in multiple languages, ensuring equitable access to educational resources in different languages, and navigating the complexities of curriculum development and assessment in a multilingual context. The sheer complexity of managing diverse linguistic needs within the education system may deter decision-makers from embracing multilingual pedagogy.

Additionally, there may be concerns about the perceived efficiency of multilingual education in achieving educational outcomes. Some stakeholders may worry that teaching in multiple languages could dilute the quality of instruction or hinder students' academic progress. These concerns may stem from misconceptions about the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, as well as from a lack of evidence-based research on the effectiveness of multilingual pedagogy in improving learning outcomes.

Despite the perceived challenges surrounding the implementation of multilingual pedagogy in teaching, learning, and assessment, this approach has persevered in its unofficial application. Instances abound where educators, faced with the task of explaining complex concepts, resort to using the learners' native languages. For instance, in Lephalale, educators are employing Sotho to describe difficult mathematical concepts, while in a primary school in Bloemhof, Afrikaans is being used to describe scientific processes.

The clandestine usage of learners' native languages in such contexts can be perplexing to comprehend. This practice intentionally disregards the valuable cultural and linguistic resources that learners inherently possess and could contribute to the classroom environment. By neglecting to acknowledge and incorporate these assets, educators miss out on opportunities to enrich the learning experience and foster a more inclusive and supportive atmosphere for all learners.

As South Africa strives to achieve its educational goals and aspirations, it is imperative that the country confronts the barriers to multilingual education head-on. This requires a concerted effort to dismantle linguistic hierarchies, invest in teacher training and resources, and promote the value of linguistic diversity within the broader society. Despite these challenges, there is an urgent need to reconceptualise the role of learners' multilingual abilities within the educational landscape.

Even within the confines of monolingual instruction, integrating learners' mother tongues can enhance understanding and engagement with the curriculum. Language is not merely a tool for communication but a gateway to cultural heritage and cognitive development.

  • Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko at Pexels.

*Prof Nhlanhla Mpofu is the chair for Curriculum Studies and an Associate Professor in Language Education at Stellenbosch University.