The Debate About Mother Tongue Education

The Debate About Mother-Tongue Education: What You Should Know

Written by Adrian Marnewick

Since the enactment of the South African constitution when 11 official languages were recognised in our multicultural country, the debate about mother-tongue education has been raging.

After all, the Constitution does state that “everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable”. Disagreements have however arisen regarding what is considered “reasonably practicable”.

Are your children being taught in their mother tongue? Here are some points on the topic that you should take note of.

Room full of school children

The situation in South Africa

As the number of English first-language speakers is only the fourth highest of all the language groups in South Africa, it follows that the majority of children in the country are taught in a language that is not their mother-tongue.

School subjects in South Africa are either taught in English from grade 1 all the way through to matric or the first three years of education are presented in the children’s first language (any of the other ten official ones) before the language of instruction shifts to English in grade 4.

“About 60% of children in grade three learn in a language other than English or Afrikaans. By grade four, this proportion is only about 5%,” write Stephen Taylor and Marisa Coetzee in an article on their research about mother-tongue education in the Mail & Guardian.

This is the practice in South Africa despite the fact that, as Carol Bloch points out in an article for Media Club South Africa “research from around the world has shown that it takes longer than three years to fully learn a language and the best option is for children to learn through a language they know well for the first six years at school.” Ideally, English should be presented as an additional language during this time and “it can gradually be used as a co-teaching medium. This gives children the best of both worlds”.

“If a learner cannot really understand the language of instruction, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the content of the subject. Often children simply just learn things by rote with little or no comprehension,” writes Anthony Tolika sketches the situation in South Africa in an opinion piece for Dispatch LIVE.

Two boys talking

Advantages of Mother-tongue education

Studies have found evidence to suggest that mother-tongue education leads to better academic performance. In their paper “Estimating the impact of language of instruction in South African primary schools: A fixed effects approach”, Taylor and Coetzee find that “among children in schools of a similar quality and coming from similar home backgrounds, those who were taught in their home language during the first three years of primary school performed better in the English test in grades four, five and six than children who were exposed to English as the language of instruction in grades one, two and three. This finding seems to be in line with the thinking of education specialists, who have for many years promoted the advantages of mother-tongue instruction in the early stages of children’s education.”

Michael le Cordeur points out in a Stellenbosch University article that “the 1996 Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities proposed that ‘in primary school, the curriculum should ideally be taught in the minority language (mother tongue)’.” And that, “The principle that children should be taught in their mother tongue for at least the first six years of their schooling life, is universally acknowledged”.

Socio-linguist Thabo Ditsele is quoted in the Daily Maverick as saying that “that teaching younger children in a language that is not their mother tongue appears to disrupt cognitive ability and interferes with the learning process”.

The word skool written on the road

Mother-tongue education might also actually make the acquisition of a second language easier. Earlier this year, during a talk on the topic at the he African EduWeek conference, an associate professor of the City University of New York, Immaculee Harushimana, said that, “The acquisition of language becomes easier when literacy in the home language has been achieved.” Engineering News further reports that according to Harushimana, “Mother-tongue instruction and foreign-language instruction are mutually supportive.” Taylor and Cloete also point to linguistic theories that support what Harushimana posited.

Furthermore, being educated in their mother-tongue can give children a sense of pride in their heritage and identity. Earlier this year, former Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile rightly remarked that, “languages are the most powerful tools of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage,” reports eNCA. This is something that is close to Harushimana’s heart as she made a plea to: “Let us teach our children to love themselves and their heritage first before we introduce them to the languages and cultures of other people. Let us enable the acquisition of foundational school knowledge through the language they know best — their mother tongue – like all other countries are doing.”

Unfortunately, as Tolika points out, there are people in South Africa who think that “speaking and learning in English means you are ‘well-educated’, and so they, often unwittingly, support the abandonment of their children’s mother tongue”.

Arguments Against

The perception mentioned in the previous paragraph is an example of resistance to the idea of mother-tongue education, which is clearly prejudiced. But there are also some arguments that are a bit more substantial.

In the Daily Maverick Stephen Grootes presents the argument for schooling to happen in English, as it “has emerged triumphant as the global language“. Certainly it is the language of the labour market. But does that mean that the first six educational years should not be in the children’s mother-tongue?

In a video for eNCA, Elijah Mhlanga of the Department of Basic Education says that there is a school of thought that suggests that “learners must take English right from when they start school so that they don’t struggle having to adopt it at a later stage“. But Taylor and Coetzee point out that starting with English might actually not give learners the head-start one would hope for. They reiterate that “many linguists argue that when it comes to learning a second language it is crucial to first have a solid foundation in one’s first language”.

Grootes further argues that mother-tongue education could lead to racially divided schooling. “Linguistically segregating our classrooms will only lead to more trouble in the long run. It won’t help anyone to be kept apart. And surely what South Africa needs now is integration, sweet integration,” he writes.

And of course there are the practical problems of training teachers, developing academic vocabulary in some of the languages and ensuring the availability of resources such as textbooks in all languages.

Wall with writing on it

What can be done?

If we’re going to take the implementation of mother-tongue education seriously, the availability (even at rural schools) of textbooks in all the official languages is non-negotiable. In the eNCA video, Doron Isaacs of Equal Education, who has studied the textbook situation says: “It’s crazy that that kind of resources are not available.”

Professor Phaladi Sebate, in a video for News24, suggests multilingual teaching as another option to help learners grasp concepts in their mother-tongue. Even though a class might be presented mainly in English, this would involve the teacher explaining certain key concepts in the children’s mother-tongue. Sebate emphasises recognition of the mother-tongue. The teacher should not view it as “wrong” or “unequal”.

Athambile Masola writes about a similar teaching attitude when she states in an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian that: “Children should be encouraged to be multilingual and teachers should be adept at teaching multilingual students.” However, she admits that, “Bilingual learning is not without its controversies.”

Lastly, Le Cordeur is adamant that the government should do more to communicate “the benefits of delivering foundation skills to primary school children in their mother tongue”. He believes that this might change the perception of parents who do not perceive the value of mother-tongue education.

At WorksheetCloud, we’re wanting to create worksheet content in additional languages such as isiXhosa and isiZulu to give learners an educational advantage by allowing them to learn in their home language, giving them a greater understanding of the curriculum. Would you find this useful? Post your comments below.

Photos: Nagarjun Kandukuru, flowcomm, DFID, Kyknoord, Maryland GovPics, and WycliffeSA on Flickr

The Author - Adrian Marnewick

Adrian is the Product Director and Co-founder of Learning Lab Apps, the company that develops WorksheetCloud. He is an activist for technology in education, but also a firm believer in the effectiveness of good, old fashioned, hands-on teaching.

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

You might also be interested in:


  1. Immaculee Harushimana

    Dear Mr. Marnewick, I wish I had seen this blog much earlier to keep the conversation going. I wish to commend you for your audacity to cover a topic that makes many African people, particularly those who erroneously view English as their first language (of literacy), uncomfortable and agitated. Since you honored me by quoting me more than once in your article, I thought I should show you my gratefulness by posting my comment.

    One missing dimension from the Eurocentric educational system customized for Africans is critical pedagogy. Why is it so hard for Africans to realize that all the nations with powerful economies have powerful educational systems primarily conceived in their national language?

    I recognize the fact many African nations are confronted with the multilingual situation which makes the consensus on which language to adopt for education difficult. Some people have also raised the issue of teaching materials as a hindrance to the implementation of a mother tongue education agenda.

    Personally, I do not think teaching materials are the problem. The problem is the people who cannot sit down and reach a consensus on what languages should be adopted based on sound criteria. Mind you, there are nations who have been able to do it even though they fail to appreciate the positive impact. A foreign language can not unite a people, for there will always be aspects of it that cannot be converted perfectly. Through gestures and realia, an African language can be easily deciphered. After all, Let’s face it:

    — Some languages have no written systems
    — Some languages have a very small ratio of users
    — Some languages have very low intelligibility

    These are criteria that can be taken into consideration when negotiating which languages can be adopted for mother tongue education.

    From a critical perspective, I wish to let it be known that never will a native speaker of a dominant language give full credit to an African who demonstrates proficiency in that language. There will always be lingering doubts.

    Although some linguists have questioned Kachru’s notion of concentric circles, the reality remains that outer circle English users cannot get rid of the influence of tribal languages on the acquisition of English. As a matter of fact, those from the peripheral circle, i.e. those who view it as a foreign language to be learned like any academic subject, might be closer to it than the other category.

    Where some people see the lack of materials as the problem, I see the lack of well trained teachers as the problem. But most importantly, I come back to the lack of a sound policy of mother tongue education as a major handicap to African nations’ successful fight against illiteracy and poverty. Freedom of thought begins with the freedom to conceive reality in one’s mother tongue. Thank you

  2. Nii

    The only reason parents will actively resist mother tongue or home language education is that those languages are not provided for in examinations especially at higher levels.
    South Africa has only 11 of such languages. Once your examination boards and universities start offering linguistic flexibility in examination of subjects the debate is over.
    It is a fallacy that the languages are not developed. Once there are Bibles in those languages that problem has been solved already. That is the reason why missionaries take great pains to translate Bibles.
    Reform the examination and the language of instruction will change pronto.

    • Silas

      This is excellent , thanks hope to see your opinion work out, I celebrate your brilliance

  3. SILAS

    This is extremely wonderful,I wished I had seen this material earlier, it is really helpful and it is note worthy I appreciate every ones opinion it’s a work of brilliance, I also want to support, that measures should be up to ensure that mother tongue is being considered paramount in our examination system so as to give room for the effective implementation of mother tongue education, since it has been proving globally through numerous researches that mother tongue facilitates easy comprehension and assimilation of contents of a subject matter…

  4. Indira


  5. Laisani

    Thanks everyone for the comments…these has helped me in my current research topic

  6. katherine

    Awesome post.Thank you.

  7. katherine

    Thanks for sharing such a informative post.

  8. Eshal Fatima

    Thanks for sharing such a informative blog. It is so informative for everyone.

  9. Faith

    Thanks for posting this. And so the question still remains….. Is teaching mothertoungue in schools a good idea to adopt or not??

  10. AJ

    It’s a CRIME against the African child to deny him/ her mothertongue education … and by doing so sentencing them to lifelong mediocrity and under achievement.

    Never original and proudly African …. always ‘secondhand British’!

  11. Rachelle van Tonder

    I fully agree that the best way for children to excel at school and perform better academically is to teach them in their home language for the reception years of their lives. Unfortunately in South Africa, this is not the case for most of our learners. They indeed struggle to grasp the content if they do not fully understand the language of instruction. Language barriers are the number one stumbling block for most second language learners which actually get labeled as being incompetent at times. However, if you pose the same question or test in their own language …I’m sure they will be able to do much better if they could clearly understand what is asked of them……

    • Kyle Roets

      Hey Rachelle, thanks so much for taking the time to share your feedback with us!

      I definitely agree with this and you’ve raised a really important and valid point, thank you so much for sharing.

      Please let us know if there are any other blog topics you would like us to cover in the future or if you have any questions regarding our content.

      Kyle 🙂


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This