International Mother Language Day (IMLD) was celebrated on 21 February with the aim of promoting linguistic diversity and multilingual education. This year’s theme was, “Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation.”

The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy strongly believes that mother tongue education needs to be reinforced and developed for at least six years, or more, of formal schooling with English being taught as a subject for effective literacy attainment, for the development of English as a second language and for academic success to be achieved. In South Africa, learners are taught in their mother tongue for the first three years of their formal education (Grades 1 to 3) before they begin learning in English in Grade 4.

According to Masennya Dikotla, the CEO of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, it takes six to eight years to learn a second language well enough for it to be used as a medium of instruction. So, it is ineffective for learners to make the transition from learning in their mother tongue to learning in English after only three years as it happens in South Africa. South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The study found that eight out of 10 Grade 4 learners cannot read. Most of the learners who performed badly in
the PIRLS study wrote their tests in their mother language, the language they had been taught from Grades 1 to 3. Making children learn in English in Grade 4 when they haven’t even mastered reading and writing in their own mother tongue really compounds the problem.

Research shows that the longer a child can read and write in their mother tongue, while learning a second language (in our case English), the better the chances of them succeeding when they begin learning in the second language in high school.

Parents also need to be informed that children best learn reading, writing and academic content when they learn in a language they understand, and that children who learn to read and write in the language they know best, their mother tongue, can learn to write in the second language better and faster. Mother tongue education for at least six years and not three will considerably increase the return on investment in education, contribute to knowledge creation and reduce our high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment.