By Mzukona Mantshontsho
International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide since the year 2000 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
Every year, people around the world commemorate the killing of four students on February 21, 1952, in defence of officially using their mother language, Bengali, in Bangladesh. It was first announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999. Its observance was also formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution establishing 2008 as the International Year of Languages.
This day is held to celebrate languages spoken worldwide. In South Africa with 11 official languages, the basic education schools provide mother tongue language as the primary first language to all the learners.
When asked about International Mother Tongue Day in a television interview, poet Natalia Molebatsi said: “My mother tongue language is Setswana, the language that I learnt at home. Our children speak and are taught in English at school and when they get home they watch television and most of the programming is in English. It is about time that we affirm our Setswana and our other official languages in South Africa at home, which are the languages that our forefathers were lessened and made to feel inferior whenever they spoke them by our colonial history and apartheid”.
When asked if her mother tongue language was relevant in South Africa today, she said: “Yes! That is where we come from, our forefathers spoke those languages and we need to embrace them and speak them – let’s teach our children language, let’s make our children have the choices and opportunities out there. In my poetry for instance, I use all the official languages that I know, I am able to connect with people from different languages and backgrounds, thereby promoting the ‘melting pot’ and rainbow nation that we all speak about in South Africa and particularly in Johannesburg,” she added.
“By allowing our children to speak and be proud of their mother tongue languages, we are making them accept and embrace the diversity in our society, as well as teaching them to respect their peers and the different languages they speak,” she said.
It was really encouraging that late last year cabinet welcomed the incremental introduction of an African language in Grade R and Grade 1 where such languages are not yet offered. Cabinet encourages all South Africans to learn an indigenous language as it promotes multilingualism and fosters nation-building.
The Department of Basic Education announced that all schools in 2014 would offer an African language to all learners from Grades R to 9. All provinces, through their Heads of Education committed to ensuring that African languages are implemented incrementally and effectively.
The implementation of African languages requires that all learners exit at Grade 9 level having learnt an African language for at least one phase. It is perceived that African languages do not enjoy the same development and utility as English and Afrikaans. The department will therefore ensure that all African languages are equally developed and used by learners in the best interest of their learning and performance in their 12 years of schooling.
According to the National Language Policy there are approximately 25 different languages spoken in South Africa, of which 11 have been granted official status in terms of section 6 of the Constitution (Act No. 108 of 1996), on the grounds that their usage includes about 98% of the total population.
South African Official Languages: isiZulu, English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda, Sepedi, Xitsonga, isiXhosa, and isiNdebele
There is currently a strong awareness of the need to intensify efforts to develop the previously marginalised indigenous languages and to promote multilingualism.
The National Policy Framework not only initiates a fresh approach to multilingualism in South Africa, but strongly encourages the utilisation of the indigenous languages as official languages in order to foster and promote national unity.
It takes into account the broad acceptance of linguistic diversity, social justice, the principle of equal access to public services and programmes, and respect for language rights.
In most circumstances learners are not native English speakers which creates learning challenges as they progress throughout their schooling careers. The language of learning and teaching is determined by School Governing Bodies (SGB) as spelled out in the South African School’s Act
Learners are encouraged to fully embrace their mother tongue. Early education through mother tongue has proven to produce better academic results. Mother tongue influence protects linguistic and cultural tradition and it further inspires solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue in the country.
In celebration of International Mother Tongue Day, schools across the country will be participating in a number of activities in promoting their mother tongues, including reading; reciting poetry; and art amongst others.
Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.