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Mother tongue is best for children

Storyteller and cultural activist Deirdre Jantjies is changing the way people read.
Storyteller and cultural activist Deirdre Jantjies is changing the way people read.
Image: Supplied

Language is a fundamental part of who we are and how we understand our world. How does the lack of mother tongue books in South Africa affect our children?

Nonuse of mother tongue makes it difficult for many children to learn to understand their world and to learn other languages. People forget that language expresses our attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, spirituality, social concerns and knowledge. It's intertwined with how we do things and who we are.

Without it, it might be hard for children to process new knowledge, to express what they know and to engage in discussions.

You've spoken before about how few original books there are in Xhosa and Zulu. Translators are always asked to translate from English, never into English. We must change this. What projects have you found that are working to make that change a reality?

One project is the Oxford University Press and the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research project (at the University of the Western Cape) where they take Xhosa classics like Ityalalamawele and turn them into English.

The authors involved in the project are Antjie Krog, David waMaahlamela, Loyiso Mletshe, Zukile Jama, Thenjiswa Ntwana, Sindiwe Magona and others. These books are published under the name African Pulse.

I am happy that this literature is being made available in English because it also offers other possibilities of Nguni literature being translated to Sotho languages as well as to other African languages and vice versa. This means we can, for example, have access to Tsonga literature and read each other as Africans.

What challenges and surprises are there translating into or from Xhosa?

It's not so much about giving a literal translation (word for word) but looking for equivalents in the target language.

Idioms pose a challenge. If a concept does not exist in one of the languages, you must replace it with an equivalent.

For example, the concept of a fairy godmother isn't really relevant in African literature. I've resolved this before by using the 'old woman' figure, who is an important person in African folklore.

Science is taught in English from grade 4, so that must create a world of problems with new concepts and new words.

How can we stop failing our emerging young scientists because of a lack of language?

Children need books about blacks and women scientists to start seeing possibilities for themselves for becoming scientists . and they need to know that they can learn science in their languages.

We could start translating existing books on outer space, on reptiles, on plants and so on into African languages, while also encouraging the production of original books in these languages.

You made a huge contribution to resources for Xhosa children by translating George's Secret Key to the Universe a few years ago. The book was written by Stephen Hawkins' daughter, Lucy, who seems passionate about making science accessible and fun for children. What was that experience like?

I loved it. Instead of reading the whole book first, I decided to translate as I read it. That meant I was always kept in suspense - I would stay up the whole night to find out what happened next. Sometimes I wanted to know who the bad character was and I asked my son who had read the whole book before me, but he refused to tell me. What slowed me down were the nonfiction parts of the book that gave scientific information. Sometimes I had challenges where I had to either coin new words or borrow. For example, I coined remote control as isilawuli-kude but I needed to test this with people. Facebook became my friend because I have Xhosa language specialist friends as well as astronomers and geologist friends who helped a lot.

A huge part of decolonising our classrooms is making all our children's languages central to their learning experiences. People tend to think that this would result in a chaotic classroom, but in your experience you've found it can happen quite seamlessly?

Classrooms should be buzzing with activity anyway and chaos can be used productively. Children in the classes where I have taught or tried out ideas become much more inclusive when multilingual talk is allowed. Children engage more with ideas and can express their opinions freely.

They learn to respect and value each other's languages and become language brokers.

Where do you recommend people go to access reading resources in Xhosa or Zulu?

Biblionef South Africa in Pinelands donates books in 11 official languages. David Philip Publishers and Jacana Media have been publishing Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho books.

The Sowetan Storybook is a 64-page full-colour book with four South African stories in it. Five groups stand a chance to win. Send the name of your institution, your name, your physical address and your cellphone number to patti.mcdonald@tisoblackstar.co.za.

Congratulations to our winners: Kabelo Tlhoaele and the Ridgevale Primary School; Andile Magengelele and the Smallworld Childcare Centre; Mpho Mabalane and the Setlolamathe Primary School; Agnes Maropeng and the Dr Knak Primary School and Mmabore Mogashoa and the Mogashoa Primary School.