The teaching of mother tongue languages in South Africa took a back seat with the advent of democracy, as many parents began sending their children to previously white schools that often taught few or no African languages.
But with an increasing number of people becoming aware of the importance of the mother tongue, South Africans are becoming more protective of this valued part of their identity.
It is therefore no longer surprising to find debates about teaching the foundation phase of grades 1 to 3 in the mother tongue as a way of preparing children to better learn English and other languages.
The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), a chapter 9 institution constitutionally charged with ensuring the protection of mother tongues and promoting multilingualism, has declared February 2017 to be Language Month.
South Africans are encouraged to use their mother tongues throughout this month, with policymakers leading the way as PanSALB leads the “28 days of language activism” crusade.
“As we celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, it is important that we also reflect on the Republic’s use of all official languages and other languages as enshrined in the Constitution,” said PanSALB chief executive officer (CEO) Dr Rakwena Mpho Monareng.
It is hoped that, through this campaign, South Africans will acknowledge the importance of preserving African languages while promoting multilingualism.
The month-long celebration of languages will culminate in the commemoration of International Mother Language Day (IMLD) on February 21.
The IMLD was proclaimed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in November 1999 and has been celebrated as an annual event since February 2000.
According to Unesco, the overall objective of the IMLD is to “contribute to promoting global citizenship education”.
Unesco encourages countries to undertake promotional activities of mother tongue and multilingual education according to what suits that individual country.
PanSALB has organised a month-long campaign that includes five days of Dictionary Promotion Activities in Johannesburg from February 6 to 10, seven days of public hearings in Pretoria from February 13 and a public lecture and awards on February 28 to close the campaign.
The big day, February 21, will be broadcast live on public broadcaster the SABC. All these activities are running with the hashtag #SpeakItLiveIt, encouraging all to not just speak their mother tongues, but live the languages.
PanSALB holds that multilingualism is “a catalyst for a better democratic change” and that “languages used in the homes of South African citizens are a valuable resource for social cohesion and economic success of the rainbow nation”.
“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing humanity’s tangible and intangible heritage.
"All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education, but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding tolerance and dialogue,” said PanSALB CEO Monareng.
The IMLD came about as a result of a bloody fight by the youth of Bangladesh, who fought against the marginalisation of their language Bangla in 1952 and were shot and killed by police.
South Africa experienced a similar uprising in 1976, which saw scores of students being killed for demonstrating against the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools.
South Africa now recognises and uses 11 official languages: isiZulu, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Sesotho, isiNdebele, English and Afrikaans.
The country is therefore a good example of language diversity, acceptance and multilingualism and PanSALB sums this up with its “One nation many languages” tagline.
Unesco will celebrate IMLD 2017 with the theme Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education.
TALK TO US
Do you talk to your children in your mother tongue?
SMS us 35697 using the keyword #SpeakItLiveIt and tell us what you think. Please include your name, hometown and home language. SMSes cost R1.50