African tongues losing out

2014-03-20 00:00

“IF an African language ceases to be the main language of teaching, then the chances of mastering it decrease.”

This is according to South African Institute of Race Relations researcher Thuthukani Ndebele, whose research has found that public single-medium African language schools have declined since 2008, from 7,2% of all single-medium schools to 4,6% in 2012.

Single-medium schools are defined as schools that use one language of instruction for all pupils in all grades.

“An analysis based on an answer by the Minister of Basic Education to a parliamentary question reveals that of all the official African languages used as media of instruction in single-medium schools, only Xhosa saw an increase in the number of such schools from 278 in 2008 to 317 in 2012,” he said.

The second most used African language in public single-medium schools is Zulu, although between 2008 and 2012, the number of Zulu single-medium schools also dwindled from 188 to 85 schools. However, English single-medium schools grew from 8 522 to 8 721 between 2008 and 2012.

Ndelebe said it did not mean that African languages were discarded when single-medium schools were reduced in number.

“They [African languages] may well be taught as first additional languages. But there is a risk of them being disregarded, especially if there is a shortage of teaching staff,” he told The Witness.

Ndebele said more people are opting for English because it is an international language with which a wider range of subjects could be interpreted.

“I think parents only want to widen opportunities for their children, particularly in higher learning and commerce where there are different people from all walks of life. It is mostly that English is a more common medium across the world — almost two billion people speak it as their first or second language,” he added.

Veteran historian and author Professor Jabulani Maphalala said many children cannot read or write in Zulu.

He said children should be taught in their mother tongue throughout their primary school life, and English should be taught as a subject only, to remedy the situation.

He fears that the country is losing out on future African language authors and court interpreters.

“I’ve written three books in IsiZulu, but when I sell it to our own black people, they ask me when I’m going to translate them because they say they can’t read IsiZulu and prefer English.”

Maphalala said not only are these black middle-class people battling with Zulu, but their English isn’t that good either.

He believes that pupils thrive when they are taught in their mother tongue. “We’re truly losing out because it’s a proven fact across the globe that if a child learns in their mother tongue, they do better and can use that as an effective tool.”

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