Why it makes sense for children to learn in the language they know best

Learning any language is difficult – even if you already speak a variation of it at home. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Research has proved repeatedly that children undoubtedly achieve much better when they start schooling in a language linked to one they can already use quite well. Using a familiar language for schooling is a big part of such success, which is why the late South African educationalist Neville Alexander advocated for mother tongue based-bilingual education.

In most cases, South African children are taught in their home language for the first three years of school. After Grade 3, the vast majority must switch to English as a language of learning and teaching.

Imagine schooling as a ladder that children steadily climb from one grade to the next. Not knowing the language of the school is like taking away the bottom rungs of the ladder. In South Africa, most may be climbing the ladder steadily – and then suddenly, around Grade 4, they find that a few rungs are missing or the existing rungs are too fragile to hold their academic weight.

Layers of complexity

There are several layers of complexity at play in the way that South African schools use and teach languages.

The first layer originates in children’s homes and families. In some African cultures, for instance some Sesotho-speaking groups, the first language taught to young children is their father’s – irrespective of whether this is the language their mother spoke growing up. Some children may spend a lot of time with carers who speak a language that’s different from their parents’. They will probably develop more proficiency in that language than in their “real” mother tongue.

In South Africa, where I have conducted much of my research, many parents choose to adopt a language that is not their own mother tongue as their children’s new “mother tongue”. Sometimes the “real” mother tongue is used so rarely that speakers can hardly remember it. This variety has produced a proliferation of terms: home language, community language, first language, primary language, main language.

Beyond their homes, children may struggle even when their “mother tongue” – a standardised version of “their” language – is used at school. The isiXhosa that is spoken in people’s homes is simply not the same as that which is taught in schools. Schools tend to use standardised varieties of languages that may differ substantially from the language used in the home.

Access is yet another issue: children who grow up in a home where there are books and who are able to access digital and paper media may not find changing to another language at school much of a problem. However, those who come from print-poor homes may struggle even when their school uses their mother tongue.

To add yet another layer, research again suggests that it would be ideal for children to continue learning primarily in their mother tongue once they reach secondary or high school. But many of South Africa’s communities are extremely multilingual, which makes it difficult for schools to cater to all pupils’ home tongues. Schools tend not to use the resources – such as language teachers and books – to support the teaching of all possible mother tongues.

Finally, importantly, English is South Africa’s dominant academic language, another factor that pushes schools to encourage biliteracy among young pupils. Once they reach university, students are expected to be literate and to have built up academic language proficiency that can be continued or transferred to English. The reality is that this isn’t happening – data collected by universities suggest that most applicants aren’t academically literate.

With all of these complexities, how can space be created for more children’s mother tongues to flourish in schools and beyond?

Possible solutions

The academic literacy developed in home languages in the first grades is too basic to transfer to English or, to a lesser extent, to Afrikaans (the other prominent language in primary education in the country). The only way in which home languages can support learning sufficiently is when they are used in a structured way alongside English for the rest of primary and secondary school.

A number of models exist for mother tongue-based bilingual education, but the important point is that simply switching from a mother tongue to English in a random fashion is not the best idea. There needs to be a systematic and deliberate comparison of terms and concepts in more than one language to build academic biliteracy so that learners can show their understanding rather than their ability to memorise facts in the school language. There are no short cuts.

For example, translating exam papers to home languages may be an important symbolic gesture but if schooling has been in English all along, it is an open question whether this really improves comprehension of, say, questions on algebra.

Creating spaces for the use of mother tongues in higher education in the form of multilingual glossaries and language-specific study groups may counter perceptions that African languages are not “sufficiently developed” for higher education. This is starting to happen – several case studies show how African languages are being used in universities.

Guarding languages and identities

It isn’t easy to distribute linguistic resources equitably. But South Africans must celebrate all their mother languages as an important feature of their identities and destinies. These languages and identities must be jealously guarded, not lost through disinterest and facile notions of language superiority. We need to remember that the measures taken now should result in a more equitable dispensation for future generations if we want to improve pupils’ and students’ performance in the long run.