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There Are 11 Official Languages in South Africa. Here’s How They’re Making It Work.

In anticipation of Nelson Mandela Day, an examination of South Africa’s extreme multilingualism—and its impact on literacy. #ProjectLiteracy

Constitutional Court in the 11 official languages of South Africa. Photo via Flickr user Erich Ludwig.

As the world prepares to celebrate Nelson Mandela Day tomorrow, it’s worthwhile to revisit one of the man’s most famous observations: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Indeed, language isn’t simply the way we communicate with one another—it’s an expression of our heritage and cultural identity. And in a culturally diverse nation like South Africa, where there are 11 official languages, the complex reality of extreme multilingualism’s impact on literacy and civic engagement mirrors some of the more sensitive questions facing the nation 20 years after apartheid’s end.


Signage from the days of apartheid. Photo via Flickr user Michael Coghlan.

Throughout that period of intense racial division, South Africa claimed only two official languages: English and Afrikaans. But after the Mandela government came to power, nine more indigenous African languages were officially recognized with equal status under the country’s 1997 Constitution. This decision is unusual for Africa, where many (though not all) countries opted to codify an ex-colonial language as official following independence. Because the Afrikaners who’d been in South African government were unwilling to let go of Afrikaans as an official language, the new government insisted that to preserve it, there must be equality among other African languages, as well.

Today, many South African children grow up in households where more than one African language is spoken; it’s not unusual for different family members to consider different languages to be their first. According to the 2011 census, isiZulu is the “home” (or first) language of 22.7 percent of the population, followed by isiXhosa at 16 percent, Afrikaans at 13.5 percent, English at 9.6 percent (startlingly low, considering that it’s the most commonly used language in official settings and educational institutions), Setswana at 8 percent, and Sesotho at 7.6 percent. Five percent of the population claims one of the remaining indigenous languages as a home language.

According to Carole Bloch, Director of PRAESA (Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa), the ability to engage with society in your mother tongue is important for building a healthy community. “When children and adults are given the freedom to communicate in a language that they feel comfortable with, they are much more creative. They are much more in tune with what is going on and they are able to contribute.”

That said, the mother-tongues-based, multilingual education system enshrined in the 1997 constitution remains more of a utopian ideal than a reality, according to Bloch: “Although South Africa has probably one of the most progressive language policies in the world on paper, the political will to implement it hasn’t become apparent.”

And developmental literacy for young children appears to be suffering as a result. Though diversity in speech and thought can be the impetus for a vibrant and democratic culture, true and deep engagement with democracy, or what goes on in the classroom, can be challenging when the fundamental business of either is carried out in a second, or even third, language—as English is for many.

The first three years of primary schooling in South Africa are intended to be carried out via home languages. But in fourth grade, the situation changes, as all reading materials, textbooks, exams, and assessments are carried out in English. Thought of in many ways as “the world’s language,” English is often viewed as the key to opening the door to opportunity in terms of education and jobs. And, as even early-grade educators are aware of the eventual fourth grade switch, the drive to encourage English as a primary mode of communication often happens sooner than it was meant to.

A South African classroom. Photo via Flickr user WycliffSA.

“Often the teacher will use African languages to speak with the children and to try and explain things, but would then insist that they do written work in English—because [students] need to. Often that is the point at which children do badly, and the rote learning impetus becomes almost a necessity to survive. Meaningfulness in education suffers,” explains Bloch.

This affects learning, tests, and national assessments. According to the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), 43 percent of fifth grade students in South Africa had not acquired even the basic skills necessary to read at a fourth grade level. “Our children aren’t learning to read and write to speak effectively at all,” says Bloch. At that young age, children are not incapable of learning English, she says—far from it. But there is a vicious cycle whereby they do not gain full control over their home language, in terms of literacy, before they add English to the repertoire; likewise, gaining complete fluency in English can be an ongoing struggle.

Nick Taylor, who works on behalf of South Africa’s basic education minister, affirmed this viewpoint in IOL News, where he referred to the literacy levels of the South African students as a “national catastrophe,” leading to low reading comprehension and writing skills. The situation appears to stem from teaching children to “parrot” their new language, rather than read independently:

“In classrooms visited [...] this year, just 5 percent of [fifth grade] pupils could read at the required rate of 80 to 90 words a minute. In the urban [second grade] classrooms, [...] the average eight-year-old was meant to be reading 58 words a minute by the end of the second term, and 71 words a minute by the end of the fourth term, this was not the case. Instead, when the reading fluency of the top three pupils in each class was observed, researchers found that most were reading between 20 and 29 words a minute.”

Claudia Regnart, Social Impact Director of Pearson South Africa, believes that if local languages can be properly embedded into education, then the resulting multilingualism can benefit both children and society. “Children who learn another language are more flexible in their thinking as they have more awareness not only across languages, but also across cultures,” she says.

Pearson is taking practical steps to ensure that all of South Africa’s languages are recognized and respected in the classroom through teacher training, mentoring, and publishing projects. They have published school textbooks in all subjects, across all levels, in all 11 languages—and have launched a reading project called Vuma (meaning “having energy and power”), where children’s stories are developed and structured in local languages, rather than simply being translated.

Regnart explains that translations simply can’t have the same rhythm and color as stories created in home languages. That’s why Vuma treats each language as unique and ensures that stories contain the nuances, such as metaphors and similes, which reinforce both local language and culture.

PRAESA’s Nal’ibali Project also aims to encourage reading, and does so by bringing children and adults together in non-formal environments, to connect through a love of reading in all of South Africa’s official languages, recognizing the unique intrinsic value of each mother tongue.

The idea behind Nal’ibali is that by truly promoting multilingual literacy, children will be empowered to learn through the languages they most identify with, “using what they know to get to the unknown,” as Bloch puts it. It’s a national project with many strands: a vast online library of resources and media supplements, as well as advocacy, mentoring, and guidance initiatives. These are designed to complement “on the ground” projects, such as the National Reading for Enjoyment campaign and community reading clubs, where experienced readers (usually adults and teenagers) meet with groups of children to read and tell stories in all 11 official languages, while also playing games, singing, and creating a sense of community and belonging structured around reading.

“We are trying to flood our world with reading material and engage with people around how to do it and talk about it. If you gain a love of reading and grow a love for storytelling, it motivates you to want to read for yourself,” says Bloch.

PRAESA’s Nal’ibali initiative, along with Pearson’s, aim to ensure that local languages and multilingualism are an embedded part of South African children’s learning experience, both in the classroom and at home. Still, Regnart and Bloch are quick to point out that there is still a lot of work to be done.

As Regnart notes, “We are in an ongoing state of transformation, we are learning from mistakes of the past, and we are moving forwards.” And according to Bloch, for multilingualism to be embraced in children’s education, as it has been enshrined in the nation’s constitution, it’s up to all adults to play a part.

“We are the role models that they take their cue from, so that means that each and every one of us can do something about it,” she says.

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