Academics must lead the charge for mother tongue learning

Language was the most powerful instrument for preserving and developing a tangible heritage, while learning in a mother tongue boosted people’s abilities to succeed in their education, according to Professor Herbert Chimhundu, chair of the Centre for Language and Communication Studies at Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe.

Addressing the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference in Durban last week, he said language was at “the core of culture” and thus related to and expressed everything within that understanding. The conference was hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN.

“Language is not about speaking. It is about conveying ideas by patterns and sounds,” he said.

However, problems emerged in education if institutions only concerned themselves with one medium of instruction and “ignored the other tools students [brought] with them”.

This paved the way for increasing information and communications technology (ICT) to boost language skills and enable people to better communicate via machines – as it allowed them to communicate in their mother tongue, while still accessing world languages.

While not dismissing the importance and relevance of English in modern communication, Chimhundu said it was vital to increase mother tongue language within communities. ICT made this goal relatively easy and inexpensive.

“Raising language is everyone's business... mother tongue promotes and encourages linguistic diversity and multilingual education to develop fuller awareness of cultural tradition,” he said.

Indigenous languages being ‘fossilised’

University of KwaZulu-Natal languages, linguistics and academic literacy lecturer Dr Langa Khumalo said language went “to the heart of people's identities and recorded achievements”.

Paraphrasing former president Nelson Mandela, he said that in talking to people in a language they understood, you spoke to their heart and their head. However, since World War II, English had emerged as the dominant language, dominating African languages and assuming the “position of choice” in education.

Consequently, indigenous African languages were being "fossilised" as English caused "linguistic genocide" under policies that strengthened its use over that of other languages.

For African languages to be included in mainstream education, however, there had to be policies in place that ensured it happened.

Academics must take the lead

Chimhundu said academics throughout Africa must assume responsibility for these issues, secure in the knowledge that working and writing in a mother tongue was the best tool students had to boost their performance.

“Universities are best equipped to assume the leadership role in changing from universities in Africa to African universities.

The language policy in each university is not only about the medium of instruction, but also about accommodating the first language spoken by the majority of students... this needs to be accommodated in all levels of teaching and learning,” he said.

Chimhundu added that Africa had more than 1,000 indigenous languages, but these fitted into only five language families. This opened business opportunities for entrepreneurs to take ICT and promote language development and translation.