CEO at The Nal’ibali Trust
I have heard parents aspire for their children to only speak English or they at least prioritise the speaking of the English language above all other languages, particularly not their own African languages. Why? I have often wondered why parent choices around languages often almost place English as superior to their own home languages. I have come to learn why but I have also come to realise that this trend is often embedded in fear.
Fear of children not progressing in school, fear of their children being the odd one out, fear of the unknown. Parents also have an unspoken disregard of their own languages, internalized traumas of their own language journeys that they do not wish upon their children. It has also become glaring that parents and indeed, people use a person’s ability to articulate themselves clearly in English as an indicator of intelligence and at times, an indicator of success. It is all these things that make parents choose English over their home languages, even when study after study tells us that, children who are taught in their mother tongue in the early years of learning tend to do better later in school and that their acquisition of a second and even third language is a lot more seamless; parents still want their children to start Gr R in an English medium school. In fact, schools whose language of teaching and learning is English, are deemed to be a lot better that those with African languages as the medium of instruction.
Some parents contend and ask why they should even choose an African language as a First or Second Additional language when there aren’t enough “good” high schools where their children can continue with the additional language of their choice. Others are convinced that an African language will do their children no good, they have rendered African languages useless for their children’s advancement and development. Many are unwilling to challenge the status quo in the schools where their children are. No requests for African languages to be made available to their children or for more language options to be available.
But how can these requests be made by the very parents that have devalued African languages? It is a strange phenomenon given the history of South Africa, more pronounced by the Soweto uprising of 1976, how is it then that even as we have a painful history of identity and language, we still prefer that our children speak English and in some cases Afrikaans rather than any African language? I do not have the answers to these peculiar questions and wonderings. I do; however, have a conviction, having worked with children for most of my life, I have had the priviledge of interacting with children and parents directly. My conviction is that language is not just a tool used to communicate but rather that, language shapes our identity and forms an early foundation of our cultural experiences. There are language intricacies and nuances that can only be truly understood in the context of the ethnic group that speaks the language.
It is the most heartbreaking experience to watch a child who identifies him or herself as umZulu and can barely pronounce her name and surname, let alone speak the language. It is even more heartbreaking when the said child realizes that they cannot speak their home language, not only do they deliberately avoid those that are likely to speak isiZulu with her, this child also feels embarrassed and ashamed and as the children grow older they resent their parents who did not care to teach them their mother tongue. The identity crisis experienced by these young people is unthinkable. Parents still practice their cultural customs and traditions, where this child is expected to participate and as parents, we don’t think of the distress we put our children in as they suddenly have to go to the mountain (a coming of age ritual for young men). How do these boys spend weeks on the mountain, sometimes with other boys without being able to speak their home language? Are they even truly accepted in the inner circle among other boys? Can they claim to be heirs and custodians of a culture they do not have a language for?
We steal much more than we can comprehend when we take away a child’s home language, we steal their identity, we steal their experiences, we steal their connection with a world of their extended families and ancestors, we steal their humanness, we rob them of so much more than we give them through the English language and you will never know this until you meet a young person who has experienced this pain.
May we continue to create better futures for our children, but not at the expense of their entire identities. May we continue to harness and teach our children, not just the importance of African languages but the practice of being eloquent in their home languages, it is an injustice not to do so.