Here are the big language changes proposed for schools in South Africa


Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga says her department is moving forward with plans to incorporate mother-tongue languages at the country’s schools.

Answering a recent parliamentary Q&A, Motshekga said her department values mother tongue education and thus encourages learners to learn through their Home Languages wherever it is feasible and practicable.

“This position is in alignment with the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. Section 6 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lists the official languages as IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele, Siswati, Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, English and Afrikaans.

“All these languages can be used as languages of learning and teaching or as subjects. Section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights provides that everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.”

An increased focus on marginalised languages

In its attempts to elevate the status of the previously marginalised languages, the Department of Basic Education developed the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) Grades 1-12, which makes provision for equal use of all 11 official languages and South African Sign Language in the schooling system.

The National Curriculum Statement Grades 1-12 encourages learners to learn through their home languages, particularly, though not limited, in the foundation phase, Motshekga said.

“The policy does not restrict the use of home language instruction up to Grade 3, but emphasises the use of the home language in Grades 1-3 to reinforce the critical foundational skills of reading, writing and counting. The NCS recognises the importance for learners to learn in their home language.”

“The Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) can be selected from any official language. The NCS and the LiEP advocate for an additive bi/multilingualism approach that encourages learners to learn through their home language as long as it is feasible, as well as to learn other languages.”

Additive multilingualism allows maintenance of learners’ home language as they acquire additional languages as subjects or as languages of instruction, Motshekga said.

Home languages, English, and the reality

The National Development Plan (NDP) recommends that learners’ home language be used as LoLT for longer periods and English be introduced much earlier in the foundation phase, said Motshekga.

She noted that the plan emphasises the need to develop African languages or mother tongues as integral to education, science and technology, to develop and preserve these languages.

“Despite all these noble efforts, the reality on the ground reflects otherwise. The hegemony of English as a preferred medium of instruction and communication seems to prevail, which together with Afrikaans are still the dominant languages of learning and teaching in the majority of South African schools.”

The minister has previously acknowledged that there are issues with moving to a purely mother-tongue-based system, noting that it was likely impossible to have a pure class in Sotho or Xhosa in Gauteng the way similar classes have been held in the Eastern Cape.

She added that in classes teachers use multiple different languages to help children learn and get their point across. However, when it comes to assessments – which are typically done in English – they are once again forced to grapple with a language they did not understand while learning.

“They are no longer being tested on their cognitive development or understanding (of the work). You are now testing their language abilities, which is a problem.

“Government has begun the process of changing this and the next step is to assess them in the language they are taught – so that we are able to assess performance and not language proficiency.”

She added that government would have to use technology and other systems to effectively translate complicated scientific and mathematical concepts into languages that do not necessarily have the same terminology.

Pilot project and expansion 

The Eastern Cape has initiated its Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education pilot, wherein 2,015 schools are using IsiXhosa and Sesotho as the LoLT up to Grade 9.

Learners in these schools are taught mathematics, natural science and technology in their home languages IsiXhosa and Sesotho.

This initiative was started in 72 Confimvaba schools in Grade 4 in 2012 and incrementally in subsequent grades and it is now being implemented up to Grade 9 in 2022, Motshekga said. The province is now planning to roll it out to all the schools where it is feasible.

“The DBE is currently putting a prudent plan in place to roll out African Languages Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education to the other eight provinces,” the minister said.


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