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  • Date Submitted: 03/05/2013 01:17 PM
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Mother-tongue Education in South Africa

- Andrew Foley

Introduction

The question of mother-tongue education in South Africa remains a vexed one. On the one
hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to receive education in
their mother-tongue, if they so wish. On the other hand, there are some very real difficulties
involved in the implementation of this ideal. The purpose of this paper is to clarify what these
difficulties are, and then to suggest what needs to be done to overcome them. The intention is
neither to argue for or against the notion of mother-tongue education in the South African
context, nor to consider whether its implementation is practically possible, but simply to spell
out what courses of action need to be undertaken if the idea is to be seriously pursued.

Background

The South African Constitution guarantees learners the right to receive education in the
language of their choice1. Most current research suggests that learners entering school are
able to learn best through their mother-tongue, and that a second language (such as English)
is more easily acquired if the learner already has a firm grasp of his/her home language.
Furthermore, the poor throughput rates in South African schools at the moment, where barely
a quarter of African language learners who enter the schooling system are likely to reach
Matric2, seems to indicate that the current practice of using English as the initial language of
learning and teaching is at least one contributing factor to this problem.

1

This right is, however, qualified by the consideration of reasonable practicability, which is defined in
the Language in Education Policy of 1997 as occuring when 40 learners in a particular grade in a
primary school, or 35 learners in a particular grade in a secondary school, demand to be taught in
their mother tongue.
2
As a number of newspapers reported, of the number of learners who entered Grade 1 in 1994...

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