The issue of mother tongue education has been fiercely but sporadically debated in South Africa since 1994. In the past two and a half years, student protests at universities across the country have breathed new life into the discussions.
Proponents of mother tongue education tend to argue that children should be taught in the language they first learned and spoke at home. Those who oppose this approach argue that English is a “global language” and should be the main language of instruction throughout the school system and into higher education spaces.
But in a country steeped in colonialism and apartheid, it’s not far-fetched to suspect that the common understanding of the idea of “mother tongues” is colored by outside influences.
A mother tongue is taken to be a language that has a name: Xhosa, Tswana or Sotho, for instance. It refers to the standard version of that language, transcribed in most cases by 19th century European missionaries based on how they understood and conceptualized the way people spoke in the immediate vicinity of the rural mission station.
But what they were transcribing were actually regional dialects, not pure versions of pristine languages tied to an authentic and timeless cultural identity. Decades of schooling practices institutionalized and continuously reinforced the missionaries’ notions.
Here’s the problem: those supposedly “pure” languages often bear only a loose family resemblance to the way that modern people in both rural and urban areas actually speak. But, as my own previous and ongoing research shows, it’s important to challenge the common assumption that “mother-tongue education” is necessarily helpful and empowering for African language speakers if it’s based on an unquestioned, popular idea of what a “mother tongue” is.
Read more: Quartz