Cape Town — 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 coloured 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 conceptualised 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 institutionalised 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.
I'm currently lecturing Xhosa grammar at the University of Cape Town, mostly to second language speakers but also to some who speak it as a home language. Xhosa is the country's second biggest indigenous African language.
In class I am often confronted with mismatches between what the grammar books say and how people express themselves in speech. So I often ask my Xhosa speaking students about their preferred way of saying something in their "mother tongue". The students frequently start their response with an apology like: "Well, I can say it - but I know that's not the proper Xhosa."
This embarrassment seems to partly come from a perceived mismatch between identifying as a Xhosa person but feeling as if not fully commanding one's own "mother tongue". This is reflected in other statements such as: "Even we Xhosas don't know how to speak Xhosa properly", variations of which I frequently hear from students and also from my Xhosa speaking friends.
Their statements echo findings I made while researching first my Master's and then my PhD. My work focused on language related issues at a primary school in Khayelitsha, which is the biggest of the poverty-stricken, largely informal settlements at the outskirts of Cape Town. Residents there mainly speak Xhosa.
At the school three years of "mother-tongue education" precede the switch to English as medium of instruction in grade 4, when most children are around 9 or 10 years old.
A grade 3 teacher told me that she had to teach her pupils Xhosa numbers before she can teach them maths. These are children whose "mother tongue" is Xhosa. She said:
They know these words in English sometimes. If you say inye (Xhosa for 1), they can say one, because that is the language at home. They don't say inye at home, they say one.
She also often had to teach children to say, for example, imifuno (vegetables - standard Xhosa) instead of 'iveg', which is adapted from the English word "vegetable" and is widely used in contemporary Xhosa.
Such examples show that childrens' actual mother tongues are often translingual. That is, they're made up of linguistic resources that, according to dominant Western conventions, would be said to belong to different languages.
So does this mean there's something wrong with these children's mother tongue? No, I don't think so. Perhaps, instead, there are some problems with our own notions of "mother tongue".
Mother tongue or missionary tongue?
The frame of reference for European missionaries and colonisers when transcribing African language practices was an idea of languages existing as autonomous structures, each spoken by a distinct group of people.
Versatile and flexible African listeners and speakers communicating efficiently without necessarily agreeing on one distinct, correct way of speaking did not fit this 19th century European frame of reference.
But to translate Bibles and develop grammars for their "educational" and Christian agenda, missionaries had to make African ways of speaking fit European ideas of language and grammaticality. Their Western concept of language forced them to be selective, to choose some ways of speaking for standardisation and writing purposes and to ignore others.
The result is that most of today's "African languages" and so-called mother tongues are not defined by the way African mothers speak but by how white Europeans wrote them into being decades ago.
The good news is that some shifts are happening in how African languages are discussed and understood.
Ideas like translanguaging are increasingly helping scholars to rethink their assumptions about language. Slowly, the potential of such concepts for South African education is starting to enter debates outside academia. Translingual approaches to teaching and learning are even being tested in some spaces.
Mother tongues must be re-thought and become rooted in actual language use. This process will make South Africans question established ideas of what "a language" is or what it has to be. That's a good thing: such progressive thinking is needed to better understand "mother tongues".