Mother tongue education is a dream deferred

Dumisane Lubisi
Dumisane Lubisi

This week’s announcement by the University of Pretoria (UP) that it will cease using Afrikaans as a medium of instruction received mixed reaction.

In explaining the rationale behind the decision, UP spokesperson Rikus Delport said the number of students who registered Afrikaans as a home language dropped by 50% between 1992 and 2015. He added that the phasing out of Afrikaans and solely using English as the language of instruction will make the campus more inclusive.

“It’s aimed at facilitating social cohesion on the campus. We will continue to encourage multilingualism, to foster unity and provide equal opportunities for students of all South African languages. We encourage the practice of assisting students in their home language where possible,” said Delport.

Many hailed the decision as long overdue and said that the university would now truly become a South African institution. But Afrikaans lobby group AfriForum came out strong – as expected – to criticise the decision.

It said: “AfriForum finds it worrisome that the university, notwithstanding many international research projects and expert opinions, still does not understand that unilingual education, in fact, undermines social cohesion and increases the potential for conflict and student non-performance. It is also clear that the university’s management does not understand the term ‘multilingualism’.”

AfriForum’s defence is expected. The organisation has in the past gone to court to fight for the preservation of its language and culture when the state tried to force non-Afrikaans speaking children in Afrikaans schools.

What got to me was the silence of those who speak for any of the other nine official South African languages. Someone ought to have asked what language would replace Afrikaans at the university.

Surely, in a country with such a diverse citizenry, the use of a single language as a medium of instruction should not be encouraged.

Instead, institutions must be encouraged to have more languages on offer to ensure that it attracts and is accessible to as many students as possible.

However, it is unsurprising given that the majority of black parents believe their mother tongue is inferior and prefer their own children to be taught in English insteaf ot their mother tongue or other vernacular.

So, the dream of having a truly South African university – where our rich variety of languages are on offer – will again be deferred.


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