Help! My child can't speak vernac

mother and daughter
mother and daughter

Cultural expert Dr Nomagugu Ngobese encourages families and young children to learn their native language in a fun, engaging and memorable way, from an early age. She says children are able to grasp languages easily and quickly. “It begins with telling your children how to hold up their hands when asking for something politely, and in your native language. That way, they learn their language and how to address their elders.”

Here’s how to encourage your child to speak and love their mother tongue: 

Expose your child to vernac at home

Children must be able to function and communicate effectively in their homes before they can do so out in the community, so the native language cannot be stripped away, says Themba Qwabe, author of IsiZulu children’s books. That also applies to children with language delays. And parents should play a crucial role in promoting literature in our Nguni languages, by buying books and reading to our kids. There should be television time and reading time, he adds.

“We must encourage our kids to read and allow them to narrate stories to us,” Qwabe advises. “It’s the responsibility of parents to feed the minds of kids; libraries should also have these books. It would be more helpful if the Department of Education ensured these books are at primary schools and train teachers how to teach literature at a primary level,” he added.

Don’t make fun of your child when they try

Although it’s tempting, avoid laughing or making fun of your child when they attempt to speak vernac. Gently coach them and encourage them. Anele Nkosi, 29, says she grew up speaking English at home and although she had a basic grasp of isiXhosa and was able to understand what people said, she was ostracised by other black children.

“Because I spoke isiXhosa with an English accent and would place the emphasis at the wrong place, I was teased endlessly at school.” Because she was not comfortable speaking the language, Anele eventually stopped altogether. She wishes her parents had spoken their mother tongue at home because her school experience could’ve been less traumatic. “Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so disconnected from other black children, who thought I believed I was better than them.”

Make it a habit

If you consistently stick to speaking your native language with your children, they’ll be less likely to switch to English with you, even when it becomes their main language at nursery or school, says Rita Nkoane, a mother of two bilingual boys.

“Nothing is as motivating as the need to speak a language. Without coercion, come up with situations where your children will want to communicate with monolinguals in the minority language. Think of play dates, calls to uGogo, sports and other activities in your native language,” she suggests.

Correct carefully

Repeat their statements back to them with the correct pronunciation or word usage but don’t over-correct. “Children get discouraged when they try something and you always shoot them down with corrections. Give your child lots of praise for his efforts,” Dr Ngobese explains.


Children respond well to age- appropriate incentives. Your five- year-old will love getting a smiling sun sticker on the wall chart, but figure out something different for your teenager.

“I think it’s okay to bribe sometimes to get them to speak your home language. But use bribes sparingly and save them for crucial situations when your children show tendencies to drop the minority language.” Nkoane adds. It takes time but you’ll get there.


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