By dr. Hello Steyn
Recently I read an online post from a parent looking for recommendations for a school for her toddler. An English school, please. Double medium is also right – because both her parents are Afrikaans and the little girl who is brought up in English therefore at least understands Afrikaans.
Two Afrikaans parents – and a child who, despite the parents’ best intentions, will never be English or Afrikaans.
Unfortunately, this is not an exception, but an increasing trend that we see not only among Afrikaans speakers, but also among other native speakers in South Africa. Somewhere, someone convinced us that our Afrikaans or seSotho or isiXhosa children are not going to be ready for the world one day. Somewhere, someone convinced us that only English will open doors for our children.
Somewhere, someone convinced us that all indigenous languages are subordinate to the so-called Language of the Future.
And because we ourselves are extremely ignorant about the role that language plays in children’s social, emotional and educational development, we are easily led by the nose by “experts” who drive other agendas and do not at all have our children’s best interests at heart. Fully convinced that English is the new world language, we like to fire each other up at children’s parties and around the barbecue fires.
The rest of the world did not fall for this. With a recent work visit to six countries in Europe – including Switzerland, Hungary, France and South Tyrol in Italy – it struck me again how little Europeans care about English. So little, that my English could barely help me book into a hotel, order a coffee or ask for directions. However, my German – and Afrikaans, which is a Germanic language – came in handy.
What does the average European know that we don’t? Why would they cling to a mother tongue so much? Because language, culture and identity are closely intertwined. Because we cannot separate a language from where we come from or from our future. Because we can deeply understand and master our world through a mother tongue. Because a mother tongue is the most honest and close form of communication between individuals – especially between parents and children. A mother tongue not only supports our emotional and social development and well-being, but also unlocks opportunities around the world.
These are not things that I, or my friends, or an economist, or a lecturer in management accounting at a university or a school principal get rid of. These are the findings that researchers worldwide – the real experts – point out over and over and undeniably. A mother tongue, at home and at school, is the biggest advantage you can give your child.
Why? Children must be given the opportunity to first master their world in a mother tongue. A child must therefore first gain access to her world in order to understand it before she can begin naming it in other languages. That’s why it is so important that children, for example, learn mathematics in their mother tongue: they need to grasp concepts before they can approach the problem critically. An Afrikaans child who has to learn math in English has to go through an extra process before she can finally arrive at the math problem (let alone the solution). Then English does not give any child an advantage; rather, it becomes an obstacle that prevents her from reaching her full potential.
In the same way, an excellent doctor, accountant or teacher – locally or abroad – must first of all be well acquainted with the content and techniques of a specific subject area or industry. It helps you a lot if you can speak English well, but have not mastered the necessary knowledge and skills to practice your profession successfully. Mother tongue plays a key role in this mastery process. The language in which you end up working is a secondary matter if you are a master of your mother tongue and your field of study. Dr. After all, Chris Barnard did not transplant the world’s first heart because he could speak English.
Research also shows that children who have mastered a mother tongue learn a second or third language much more easily. Children who can therefore discover their world in a mother tongue – or young adults who are educated in their mother tongue – can easily continue to name that very world in another language. A child who is privileged to be taught in a mother tongue will therefore be able to speak English and most likely learn another language.
The idea that we can only function in English if we speak it at home or are taught it is bogus. Children are exposed to plenty of English on a daily basis in the digital age. They will all speak English fluently – without any extensive efforts from parents, schools or higher education institutions.
Our middle child was diagnosed with apraxia of speech: a rare motor-neurological condition that prevents him from verbally expressing what is in his head. The prognosis for children with apraxia of speech is good, but according to the literature, children with this diagnosis will only be able to express themselves in a second language with great difficulty, if ever. Despite this, our Afrikaans five-year-old can already maintain himself neatly in English. Thank you, Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol.
If our children speak Afrikaans at home and are taught in Afrikaans, their bread will be buttered on both sides. Thanks to a mother tongue, they will have an established identity, feel safe, understand their world and be able to communicate their emotions and ideas. And thanks to the digital and multicultural environment in which we grow up in South Africa, be proficient in English on top of that. These children will be best prepared for the future.
We need to widen our lens to see that English is not the world language. The city of Bozen in South Tyrol is a beautiful example of a place inhabited by different communities without English as the common language gaining ground: residents speak German, Italian or Ladin. It’s a prosperous region and young people can easily – without being proficient in English – study and work abroad.
The Irish did anglicize, but the government encourages citizens in all kinds of ways to learn Irish again. Primary school children in Ireland, for example, are also taught in Irish from their first day of school (or Gaeilge) teaching. School leavers who sit their final exams in Irish have also been compensated with a bonus scheme for decades.
A recent study in the Celtic countries further showed that parents look after their children Gaelschoileanna (schools teaching in Irish) send to promote multilingualism among their children and support their social and cognitive development. And it pays off. Not only has the number of Irish speakers increased according to the most recent census survey, but one study found that multilinguals who are fluent in Irish are better qualified and more successful in their professions.
Worldwide, immigrants are encouraged to maintain their mother tongue; not only does it strengthen the family’s identity and culture, but it also builds bonds between parents and children, helps children to adapt to a foreign environment and supports their overall performance in English schools. In addition, it also promotes multilingualism.
So speak Afrikaans to your children. Send them to African schools. Support those who promote Afrikaans in tertiary settings and in the workplace. Not for the survival of the language, but for the sake of your child. Our Afrikaans children will one day be able to function with ease in English environments. In the meantime, we owe it to them to give them the opportunity to learn optimally, so that one day they are best equipped to navigate their professional and life worlds.
I am convinced of this: One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a mother tongue: it builds identity, strengthens the bond between parent and child, and gives children a sense of belonging. And if you want to give your child a head start – in this disruptive, complex, multilingual and post-digital world we live in – send her to a school where she will be taught in her mother tongue.
Afrikaans, Irish, isiXhosa and Hungarian are not subordinate to English. On the contrary.
- Alé Steyn is head of the Department of Languages and Cultural Sciences at Akademia and coordinates the program BA (Communication and Journalism). She obtained a master’s and doctoral degree in Journalism at the North-West University and a master’s degree in English Literature and Modernity at the University of Cape Town. She and her family have lived, worked and gone to school abroad.