South Africa

South Africa

Forked tongues: will mother tongue education lead to racial division?

Forked tongues: will mother tongue education lead to racial division?

How and when languages should be used is hot news in South Africa again. This is primarily because the Basic Education Department is looking at introducing compulsory African languages at schools, but it's also because we haven't settled on how to teach our children. It's also a debate about our national identity, and whether we want our children to grow up with diversity or not. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Talking about language in South Africa, I’m handicapped. I am a white English-speaking male, which means that pretty much everywhere I go everyone speaks my language. I don’t have to make any effort to speak theirs.

Growing up in the ‘80s at government schools, Afrikaans lessons were something to be suffered through, and Zulu classes something to virtually ignore. As a result, I have absolutely no sense of what it could be like to feel that my language, and thus my culture, is changing. Because my language is the language of TV, newspapers, radio, and even, in this black nation, politics. Which means I can only examine the question intellectually.

Language is power. And don’t South Africans know that better than virtually anyone else. When the English won the Boer War, they tried to force Afrikaans kids to learn in English (ever noticed that Parktown Boys, Jeppe High and King Edward VII were all founded at around the same time? It was Milner’s Anglicisation policy). When the Afrikaners held the whip in hand in 1976, the Nats tried to force black children to learn in Afrikaans, which led to the Soweto uprisings.

So 1994 was really the first time since roughly 1652 that our indigenous languages were given a proper chance. And that’s only been in law, not actually in fact.

Because, as we are not a nation that is simply an island complete unto itself, English has emerged triumphant as the global language. Well, outside France, of course. Which means that we do have to try and accommodate it.

The result is that many millions of children are taught in their home language, and many others are taught in English, despite whatever their home language may be. To a non-specialist, it would appear that the main split is the divide that has come to mean far more than anything else in this country – whether you are in an urban area or a rural area. The more rural the area you’re going to school in, the greater the chances of you learning in your own language.

On Tuesday Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, said scientific studies had shown that children do appear to learn better in their home language. Socio-linguist, Thabo Ditsele, agrees with her. He suggests that teaching younger children in a language that is not their mother tongue appears to disrupt cognitive ability and interferes with the learning process.

Speaking on the Midday Report on Wednesday, he said that there is a clear difference between using a language to communicate with other people and employing a language to transmit learning.

So, English would be the language used to speak to other South Africans, but teaching should happen in Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, or whichever. In a way, he’s pointing to a famous quote by Nelson Mandela, that if you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his brain. But if you speak to him in his own language, you speak to his heart.

This then would make a strong case for teaching children in their mother tongue and then introduce English at a later stage. Fine.

But in a stunning example of how 140 characters really can change an argument, despite what older academics may think, one person was able to turn the entire debate on its head.

Bruce Turner (@flattestdog)

10/16/13, 12:52 PM

@StephenGrootes teaching in first language will surely lead to racially divided schooling.

And Turner, of course, might be right. There is simply no way around that. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t teach kids in their own languages and racially integrate schools at the same time. You can probably count on the fingers and toes of one family the number of kids who are black, but whose parents speak English as a home language.

You could tally up the number of whites who speak Zulu as a first language the same way one would count the number of whites who’ll vote for Julius Malema.

What then is a nation whose constitution enjoins it to integrate and transform to do? It could simply decide to go with what’s best for educating children, or it could just give up on the entire language issue, and try and ram English down everyone’s throat.

There are no easy answers. Linguistically segregating our classrooms will only lead to more trouble in the long run. It won’t help anyone to be kept apart. And surely what South Africa needs now is integration, sweet integration. The case could be made that for whatever short-term learning gains are made through mother tongue education, those will be out-weighed by the longer-term consequences of a nation growing up apart from itself.

But then how can we seriously suggest that everyone will have to learn in the white man’s language? That means the white man has won, it’s his language, and language is power. Surely it cannot be that, in this day and age, after “liberation”, that a democratic government has to decide to teach children in languages other than their own.

And don’t forget, this means that white children are in the best possible position, they get taught in their mother tongue, with all the benefits this brings, while their black peers do not.

Into the middle of this vexed debate strides perhaps the most important linguistic force of our times – television. There are children in this country who can count to ten in Spanish, but not in Zulu, simply because the pervasive and irritating influence of Handy Manny [or Dora the Explorer if you have girls. – Ed]

For them, a character created mainly to introduce Hispanic culture into a formerly Anglo-Saxon United States, now has power here. Quite frankly, so does much else of American culture.

Which means that despite every single language policy one can come up with, no matter what parents do or teachers enforce, kids are going to learn what they want to learn, and they will speak how they want to speak. As countless generations before them have.

And in the process our culture will mutate, and merge with others and integrate still others. Until, in the end, hopefully, we will have something that vaguely approximates a culture that is less separate than it is now. But that is not going to stop a debate to which there are no easy answers. DM

Photo: Children sing Happy Birthday to former President Nelson Mandela at a township school in Atteridgevile near Pretoria. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.

Grootes is a father of two children. One speaks English as well as can be expected for its age, and the other has just learnt to put its toothbrush between its toes. He spends his days as the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News. He spends his nights praying the editor of this website will not let Rebecca Davis review his brand new book SA Politics Unspun.


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