International Mother Tongue Language Day

On 21 February 1952 students from the University of Dhaka defied a ban on political protests and took to the streets to fight for the recognition of the Bengali language as an official language in Bangladesh. They wanted their language to be used in government affairs and as a medium of education. The protest was met with violent police action and resulted in the death of a number of student demonstrators. Some twenty plus years later South Africa saw similar events unfolding with the 1976 Soweto Uprising that saw hundreds of children die at the hands of the police.

International Mother Language Day is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February, in recognition of the events in Bangladesh, that aims to raise awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism.

Last Wednesday SAFM held a discussion around the issue of introducing indigenous languages into the South African schooling system. It is a much debated topic, particularly given our poor literacy results (a 2016 survey claims that 80% of Grade 4s can’t read), and the difference that mother language learning could potentially make. According to the speaker there are a number of obstacles to introducing African languages into our schools:

  • Textbooks will need to be translated
  • Often the vocabulary doesn’t exist already (e.g. there are no isiZulu words for certain scientific and mathematical terms)
  • Training teachers to instruct in a language other than English or Afrikaans will take time
  • Deciding how many of our official languages should be rolled out
  • Calculating the costs involved
  • Political will

The end result of the SAFM discussion was that while it is no easy task, it is essential that we start the process of introducing our indigenous languages into the South African schooling system.

What are your thoughts on the topic?

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