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Kids do better when taught in their mother tongue

By Sidwell Tshingilane | 2015-01-09 21:16:08.0

The reason some black learners and students fail or do not do well is because they are taught all subjects in foreign languages. English and Afrikaans-speaking students have an advantage because they write exams in their native languages.

One argument I always hear (mostly from fellow blacks) is that a graduate who wrote engineering in Zulu, for example, would not be able to work anywhere else because Zulu is only spoken in South Africa.

But that's rubbish, Afrikaans is only spoken in South Africa and Namibia but graduates who wrote exams in Afrikaans are able to work all over the world.

Language is powerful. It forms part of our identity and is an emotional and somewhat touchy subject. This is why all languages need to be respected, be it in schools or in everyday interactions.

With that said, teaching our children in their mother tongues, although a noble concept, is just impossible to implement practically. But making it compulsory for pupils to learn a different language is a step in the right direction.

Racism and discrimination thrive in environments where there is a lack of understanding. I, for one, wish I could have learnt another African language, especially since I now work in the "language blend" that is Johannesburg.

Many remember Nelson Mandela's famous words, "that if you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his brain. But if you speak to him in his own language, you speak to his heart". Perhaps it's time we put that into action.

In South Africa we have imported professionals who don't speak any of our languages but are able to work here, like the Chinese for instance. Look at Afrikaans schools, they always get 100% matric pass rates.

What is frustrating is that it is not only white people alone who relegate our languages - our own black people have lingual self-hate.

Some years ago the then Limpopo MEC of education Dr Aaron Motsoaledi suggested a law that all schools in Limpopo have at least one Limpopo language (Venda, North Sotho and Tsonga) as either first or second language. White people were generally excited but black people who sent their kids to "town schools" threatened to protest against such a law because they didn't want their kids to be taught "unimportant" languages.

Who says English is the most widely spoken language in the world? While we brag about the need to use English and put it on a pedestal, I hope we are all aware that in Europe, it is only used in the UK.

If we are going to speak of a rainbow nation, then we need to embrace and ensure that our languages don't die down. A rainbow is a rainbow because of its seven colours.

Language is an inseparable part of mathematics. Some of the first lessons parents teach their toddlers are the words to count the chubby little fingers on their hands.

After learning to count their fingers, children progress to the basics of elementary school arithmetic - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

On the other hand we can't blame a language when kids fail. All you need to do is look around you in the malls. Black kids don't speak their mother tongues anymore. Taking a closer look at the matric results it is evident that the languages they fail are their own.

The government should start taking this issue seriously. It will be a long process but it can be done. Language development does not have short cuts so we must not look for one.

Tshingilane is senior researcher at Ekasi Development Projects Follow me on twitter: @Sidwell_SA