Celebrating heritage: The importance of the mother tongue in learning

May is a wonderful month of African celebration. On the 5th of May every year we recognise African World Heritage Day. Three weeks later, we commemorate Africa Day on the 25th.  Both days honour the continent’s rich cultural heritage and unity within diversity.

At Molteno, we believe one of the best ways to keep South Africa’s culture and heritage alive is through culturally sensitive, mother tongue instruction in the classroom. With children spending so much of their time at school, the classroom is a critical place to practice, develop and nurture native language. Specifically, in a country with so many recognised official languages, we believe all children should be taught in their mother tongue until Grade 3, coupled with development of English as a first additional language.

The cultural benefits of mother tongue learning

Maintaining a native language has a range of important benefits, as highlighted by the Intercultural Development Research Association:

  1. Personal self-worth: A child’s first language is critical to their identity. Maintaining this language helps them to better value their culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-image.
  2. Social interaction: Maintaining native language preserves important links to families and communities.
  3. Intellectual development: Culture aside, learners need uninterrupted intellectual development. Learners that switch to learning only in English when they’re not fluent in the language function at an intellectual level below their age. This interruption can lead to lower levels of learning confidence and comprehension, and academic challenges throughout school.

Expanding the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction

Countless studies have proven this last point and demonstrated the impact of mother tongue learning on improved educational outcomes. As a result, South African policy is to maintain mother tongue instruction until the third year in most schools (with the option to extend to Grade 6), after which the language shifts into a subject.

Despite this policy, however, implementation in many schools is a different story, with English or Afrikaans still the primary medium of instruction. There are several reasons for this:

  • Parent buy-in: Many parents still believe it’s more valuable for their children to learn in English, given its status as the leading global business language. As a result, parents request an earlier transition to English. In the 2018 South African Social Attitudes Survey, 65% of parents were in favour of English being the main language of instruction, despite less than 10% of the population identifying English as their home language in the related census.
  • Lack of local language materials: Teachers are struggling to access a sufficient volume of learning and teaching materials in local languages, including readers, posters and manuals, which can make full instruction in mother tongue challenging. It’s for this reason that Molteno introduced the Vula Bula learning series, which has been translated into all 11 official languages.

To overcome each of these challenges, we need greater awareness and education within parent groups and communities on the importance of mother tongue learning. And as learning becomes increasingly digital, even in the classroom, it’s also necessary to ensure that more local language materials are available in digital formats online, through Open Educational Resources and zero-rated websites.

As we focus on implementing more mother tongue instruction in schools, we can better set our children up for success personally, socially and intellectually – keeping beautiful cultures and heritages alive too.

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