Language is closely related to identity, and as societies grow and develop, so does the evolution of language.
According to Dr Trish Cooper of the Wits Language School, the success of people learning a language is closely related to motivation. And as the world celebrates International Mother Tongue Day, Cooper argues that even though English has been established as the language of business, people who travel to other countries will always need to learn another language, and learning a second language can foster a greater relationship with those around us.
“Being bilingual or multilingual is a clear advantage both socially as well as in the workplace. People are generally more willing to open to those who speak their language, particularly in cases when it is not necessarily expected that others speak your language,” she says.
Cooper says that being multilingual can also open up career opportunities and can help to establish contact within the workplace. Mother tongue teaching in schools also needs to happen on a broader scale.
“About 75% of schools have implemented a policy of mother tongue teaching in foundation phase in the first three years of school. The idea is that this helps the children become literate in the mother tongue, and so enables them to pass their basic literacy skills onto another language,” she says .
“If there is a specific reason to learn a language such as working in the country where that language is spoken or marrying into that community, the learner is likely to be successful, particularly since that learner would then probably have the opportunity to interact with speakers of that language on a regular basis,” Cooper tells City Press.
One of the problems with our current education system is that there are very little resources which accommodate mother tongue learning for minority languages such as Venda, Tsonga and Ndebele.
“For example, in some of these minority languages, there are only 35 story books for children. As a result, the range of vocabulary which children learn during reading is fairly limited,” she says.
Cooper argues, however, that as much as mother tongue learning needs to happen, it is dependent on factors such as the resources available in the mother tongue as well as the training that teachers are given in order to equip them to teach in various languages.
If a learner cannot understand the language that they are being taught in or the language their textbooks are in, they are not going to be able to absorb much in the classroom.
“In terms of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, South African students have among the lowest literacy rates in the world as 78% of the children tested were unable to read for meaning. In order to change the quality of reading, our children need to learn to read functionally,” says Cooper.
But in order to do so, children need to expand both their vocabulary and their understanding of complex grammar as well as develop higher order reading skills such as inferencing.
“In order to develop these skills, a number of interventions have been implemented, with the result that an improvement in the literacy rate was shown from 2006 to 2011. However, this improvement has slowed since 2011,” Cooper says.
Education activist Ayesha Meer agrees that mother tongue learning needs to take place. She worked as a maths teacher and witnessed how students have struggled to grasp concepts as a result of not being taught in their mother tongue.
In order to change the quality of reading, our children need to learn to read functionally.
“English is still widely perceived as a language of ‘upward mobility’. Increasingly, the trend for many parents who want the best for their children, and schools that want to offer the best for their learners, is to choose English from the start,” says Meer.
“This line of reasoning flies in the face of basic logic – if a learner cannot understand the language that they are being taught in or the language their textbooks are in, they are not going to be able to absorb much in the classroom. If I try explaining fractions to you in a language you don’t understand, you are very likely to misinterpret what a fraction is and how it relates to you in a language you don’t understand. You are very likely to misinterpret what a fraction is and how it relates to a whole number.”
Meer believes that a major intervention that can be made is for mother tongue learning to take place in our schools.
“It is not going to be the silver bullet that solves all of our education problems, but this is one important intervention we can be making. It is clear that the learning outcomes, both in terms of matric passes or passes in high school, is by improving the instruction that learners receive in early grades from grades one to three,” she said.
One of the ways is to ensure that learning materials cater for African languages.
“Simply translating English books will not work because literacy and learning to read differs in each language. Currently Grade 1 to Grade 3 teachers teaching in African languages only have access to curriculums known as CAPS that were originally written in English and were later translated into African languages,” Meer said.
Meer believes that the department of basic education needs to be commissioning research into how literacy is acquired in each language spoken in South Africa so that materials can be produced relevant to that research.
• February 21 is International Mother Language Day