Mother-Tongue Education is Critical In Early Years of Learning

In education, if a child is taught in his or her mother-tongue, it is more advantageous than using a foreign language. The child is most likely to acquire knowledge with ease and do well in their learning. In this article, I am going to emphasise the importance and advantages of teaching children in their own mother-tongue particularly in their early years of learning.

Firstly, language is a communication tool and it is more complex than just speaking. Language is the cognitive faculty that enables human beings to learn and use a system of complex communication. Human beings acquire through social interaction in early childhood, language reflects human culture, social grooming, social structure and group identity, therefore language carries an identity of human beings. Mother-tongue has many definitions. However, it is a language that a child is exposed to from birth.

Mother-tongue education is education which uses the language which a person has it’s medium of instruction that is a person’s mother tongue, meaning the language a person has acquired in their early years and has become their natural instrument of thought and communication ( Tollfeson (1991) cited in Kamwangamula (2000). I firmly and strongly believe that teaching children in the own mother-tongue it is pivotal and children are most likely to do well in their education. My notion is scaffolded in an article I read about mother-tongue education by Tshepiso Matentji, a registered psychologist. In her article, She made an argument that it is in the best interest of the child to pursue mother tongue instruction within the foundation phase. She said that it is critical for black learners, particularly who come from bi and multilingual familial contexts. I share the same sentiments as Matentji. In South Africa, there is a big problem of illiteracy in schools. Children cannot read and write. I believe it is the result of LOLT (Language of Learning and Teaching). South African schools have two media of instruction: English and Afrikaans. The two languages, as a result of historical context, continue to have elevated status while other languages continue to be marginalised.

On the contrary, it is enshrined in the constitution of South Africa that all the languages should be equal. I started school in 1994 and I was taught in Setswana. 24 years later I can still remember what I was taught by my Grade 1 teacher; I remember how our teacher taught us phonics (vowels, consonants, split digraphs, decoding, and encoding) and in Math, the number operations and Math vocabulary in Setswana. I was introduced to English in Grade 5 and it was easy for me to understand because I had already acquired the rudiments in my mother-tongue. I was taught in the language that I was exposed to at home and school, and that helped me to acquire and retain what I have been taught. Unfortunately today, many children today are coerced to learn in the language that is foreign to them and as a result, they cannot acquire the basics. The children are only exposed to the language for a few hours, only when they are in class. During playtime and after school the children express themselves in their mother tongue.

Many parents are not competent in the English language, therefore they cannot be involved in the education of their children. They cannot help them with their school work unlike us, our parents could help us with our school work because they could understand what was expected of us to do.

When I started teaching in high school in 2012, I used to blame the primary school teachers which is still the case today. The high school teachers blame the primary school teachers for not teaching the children how to read and write. In 2015 I transferred from high school to primary school because of my passion for special needs education and remedial teaching. I realised how important it is that children should learn in their mother tongue.

The school I taught in was a former ‘model c’ school. The foundation phase teachers were all white and the children were mostly black and coloreds, coming mainly from Sesotho and Afrikaans speaking backgrounds. The teachers tried their level best to teach but there was great difficulty in learning because children had not acquired the language used as the medium of instruction. A fellow colleague, Grade 1 teacher shared her frustrations with me that some children did not understand her and she could not understand them either because they cannot express themselves in the language of learning and teaching.

Nhlanhla Maake (Sunday Times, February 2014) advocated that to teach children well, do so in their own language. Maake was born after the Bantu Education Act of 1955. The support of the education was to educate African children in their mother-tongue. Like all the children who were subjected to Bantu Education from Sub A (currently known as Grade 1) to standard 6 (currently grade 8), she was taught all her subject in her mother-tongue (SeSotho). English and Afrikaans were treated as subjects. She was only introduced to English as a medium of instruction in the first year of high school because teachers did not code-mix and code switch, except in the cases where they improvised.

If one is taught in their mother-tongue from their first year to 8th Grade like in the cases of Maake serves as an advantage. The time one is introduced to another language, for instance, English, one has already grasped the concepts in their own language. The use of mother-tongue teaching has been advocated pre and post-1994 in South Africa but the outcomes have seemed to arouse mixed feelings. For example, many people have the mentality that one will not succeed or be employable in the future if they learn in their respective mother-tongue, compared to learning in English. I wrote an article about the dynamics in the curriculum continuing to fail both teachers and the students. I discussed that the curriculum needs to be revised and there is a dire need for the revolution in the education system.

The DBE (Department of Basic Education) should reconsider the LOLT, particularly for the schools in the townships and rural areas.

This blog was written by Sizi Matthews ‘Afrika’ Botsime, an education activist and English Learning Support Teacher.

One thought on “Mother-Tongue Education is Critical In Early Years of Learning

  1. Kedisaletse Setlhaku says:

    To a certain degree i agree wirh the sentiments of the article. In my experience of teaching the grade 4 and 7 in previously disadvantaged schools currently known as the township schools. Learners aged from 8 to 10 years have difficulty transforming and adjustinh to subjects done in intersern. It has been concluded that, the reason for this difficulty is language as a barrier. Now, from a careful observation of different school setting and socio-economic background, it has been discovered that it is better to start early childhood learning either in their mother tongue continuously until yjey finish their schooling years or start with the “employable” language. Nonetheless, since it was also discovered that children in grade 4 cannot read or write or some who can do they can only read but not understand what they are reading. It has been discovered that the problem not only lies with tje LOLT nor the methodologies of teaching but the policies pertaining retention( a matter to be discussed another day) also Annual Teaching Plan(ATP) which assumes tbat learners can grasp informayion withing two weeks. Again, the community and society a child comes from contributes to their cognitive developmwnt and participation in school,reason being that spmw learners use school as a tool for “peace ” or a refuge center as their homes does not allow them to give their full attention and effort to their academics.


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