Speak It At School

Updated: Feb 22


The International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in November 1999 (30C/62). The United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called on Member States "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world" (UN).

The 21 February is “International Mother Language Day”.


South Africa has proactively encouraged the use of hone language and mother tongue. The Parliament of South Africa with Act 59 of 1995 established the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) to "promote and create conditions for the development and use of the official languages, as well as the Khoe and San languages, and sign language; and to promote and ensure respect for all languages commonly used by communities across South Africa, including Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu, and other languages used for religious purposes in South Africa" (PanSALB, 1995).


In 1996, The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 Section 6(1) afforded the official status to eleven (11) languages to become South Africa’s official languages, namely: Tshivenda, Sesotho, SiSwati, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele, Sepedi, Setswana, Afrikaans, Xitsonga, IsiZulu and English (Stats SA Draft Language Policy).


In South Africa we have a few organisations schools could reach out to for assistance with regards language and language development.

  • Part of the PanSALB (https://pansalb.org) mission is to promote multilingualism, and promote respect and recognition for all languages, including previously marginalised languages and all other languages commonly used by South African communities. Explore their services here: https://pansalb.org/services/

  • The South African NRC (https://nrc.org.za) was established by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as a comprehensive national response to the reading challenges facing South Africa. The National Reading Coalition (NRC) is a coordinating structure where all reading initiatives and interested stakeholders can come together to share knowledge and successful learning experiences. Explore the range of books, projects or podcasts. Consider registering to the next virtual reading club on the 24th February 16;30 https://nrc.org.za/

  • South African Primary Education Support Initiative’s (www.sapesi.org.za) main aim is to improve literacy and numeracy in primary schools, to narrow the education gap in South Africa. SAPESI is found in all provinces, contact them here http://www.sapesi.org.za/contact-us.html

International Mother Language Day recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion of all learners, and to assist in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 4’s target 4.5 aims to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations” (UN SDG).

This year’s UNESCO observance is a call on policymakers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to multilingual education, and inclusion in education to advance education recovery in the context of COVID-19. This effort also contributes to the "United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages" (2022-2032) (https://en.unesco.org/news/upcoming-decade-indigenous-languages-2022-2032-focus-indigenous-language-users-human-rights) where UNESCO places multilingualism at the heart of indigenous peoples’ development. They built on the lessons learnt during the "International Year of Indigenous Languages" (2019), the Decade of Indigenous Languages Declaration recognizes the importance of indigenous languages to social cohesion and inclusion, cultural rights, health and justice and highlights their relevance to sustainable development and the preservation of biodiversity as they maintain ancient and traditional knowledge that binds humanity with nature (UNESCO; https://en.iyil2019.org/). The declaration from 2019 suggests the reasons for the development of home language and indigenous languages builds the individual, local community and the global communties knowledge, builds peace and reconcilation, recognition of the fundamental rights and freedoms for indigenous peoples, develops and builds social inclusion, literacy, reduces poverty and builds international cooperation, and builds recogniton of cultural diveristy, values and heritage (https://en.iyil2019.org/)


Current data (UNESCO, Decade of Indigeonous languages) indicates that at least 40% of the 7,000 languages used worldwide are at some level of endangerment. They note that reliable numbers are difficult to access, however they emphasise that experts agree that indigenous languages are particularly vulnerable because many of them are not taught at school or not used in the public life.

UNESCO believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning ( https://nrc.org.za/about/)


How are we promoting home language in all our schools even if we don’t teach those languages in our schools?


Over the years I have taught at 8 different schools, from government to private, from low-economic school communities to upper-middle class communities and worked with countless others. So often, I have had conversations with parents about how they have not encouraged their children to speak their home language or their children don’t want to learn their families home language. The parents provide a range of reasons for this dilemma. Sometimes they would speak about how their children could not communicate with their grandparents as the grandparents only spoke the home language. These parents included South Africans and parents from many other cultures around the world. These accounts and discussions were heart-breaking, seeing the sadness, uncertainity about what to do and questions about how to address this situation within their home lives.


In urban centres such as Johannesburg, teachers often have children from many different backgrounds who speak a wide variety of languages. The teachers may not be comfortable teaching in a variety local languages or may not know the language (UNESCO). As school we can assist all our parents and communities in this regard of preserving and promoting their home language. Schools could "make it cool to speak your home language!"


So what could we do as schools?

As schools we should consider how we can encourage and promote home language growth and sustainability, even if those languages are not taught at the school. Multilingual education or mother-tongue-based multilingual education strategies do exist. Schools in South Africa are teaching in more than one language, however not all the languages that learners speak at home or are exposed to at home are taught at school. Field studies have shown the effectiveness of using one’s mother tongue for learning, critical thinking, and general wellbeing in the classroom. For example: Professor Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto in Canada explored why is it so important that parents speak their own mother tongue to their children. He identifies how children that speak multiple languages have more advanced critical thinking as they have to explore how to phrase and use the language of choice at that moment in time. He also observed that

children with a strong mother tongue found it easier to pick up a second language and develop their literacy skills (https://ie-today.co.uk/people-policy-politics/the-importance-of-mother-tongue-in-education/).

Possible actions we could do as schools:

  1. Home Language at Home - Encourage parents to talk and read to their children in their home language. Nalibali suggests that “15mins of reading with your children each day can expose them to 1 million written words in a year” (https://www.nalibali.org/story-supplies/infographic)

  2. Break-time chatting - sometimes schools discourage the use of languages which are not the language of learning or are not talk at schools during the school day. Consider encouraging children to speak the language they want to speak at break. Learners may learn a range of new languages from each other during this informal time, it could also assist with tolerance, understanding and respect for each other. As a school you would be contributing to the promotion, preservation and protection of languages used by all the people in your school and school community.

  3. Parent and Child Home Language Clubs or Get-togethers - Create and encourage parent and child home language clubs or get-togethers at the school for the different language groups to meet at school. Our constitution, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 Section (30) of the Constitution states: 'Everyone has the right to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice…' (Stats SA). The clubs could include discussions, story telling, cultural activities in the home language. These activities could in a classroom, taking place regularly (eg: once a week or once a month) with the information on the school calendar. There may be a range of different language clubs taking place on the afternoon at the school.

  4. Cultural Day - Provide an opportunity for children and families to learn about the different cultures represented at your school, what about organising a cultural day, afternoon or evening. The benefit is that the children at school learn about the other children’s cultures in a fun and interesting manner. These types of events could be organised once a year, as part of the school calendar. The various communities could:

  5. Create a food stall about their culture

  6. Teach others how to how say the greetings in their language

  7. Perhaps cultural display could be held, which may be a dance or song for others to watch.

  8. Sign Language - learn a new skill, empowering learners with self-learning, and communication with all people in South Africa. People with language disabilities 4.7.1 Stats SA shall, on request and where practicably possible, provide for the needs of people with language disabilities. For example, provision of sign language posters and sign language interpreting services to facilitate communication between the hearing and the deaf employees and providing audio or Braille documents for blind employees in consultation with the Employment Equity component. (Stat SA Language Policy) As schools we need to create an awareness and an interest in the linguistic diversity of the country. If Sign Language Clubs were created children could learn how to sign to read. Members of the South African National Deaf Association (https://www.sanda.org.za/) could be invited to school as guest speakers, or take learners to attend events such as the DeafNative Theatre Festival, partner with a deaf school for sporting and cultural events. As background information see the discussion I had with Fadziso Fisher about Hearing Impairments (https://youtu.be/DWwl1gnSA30 ).

  9. Learn Braille - write to a blind friend. Learn a new skill, empowering learners with self-learning, and communication with all people in South Africa. We could teach learners how to read and understand braille, they could also learn to type Braile. Having a few Braille books in the school library to create the awareness. Consider partnering with a blind school, having a online class discussion, and growing it into a 1:1 monitored penpal interaction between the children. This would grow the confidence of the learners in both schools to communicate with others, and build their online communication skills. For some background information: See the video conversation I had last year with Kyle Williams, who demonstrates using low-vision tools and discusses his journey when he went blind at 13 (https://youtu.be/hj7A9qKkG7o ).

  10. Wide range of Home Language Books in school library, or in class libraries of other languages. Try to find out all the home languages that are spoken in your school. The first school I taught at was next Hillbrow, and at one stage we had 70 different nationalities represented at the school. There should definitely be books from all 11 South African School languages. Parents should be made aware of these books, and should be allowed to loan books fro the school library as well.

  11. Home Language and Other Book Sales at school. Consider inviting organisations that sell a variety of home language books to your school for parents to buy for their children to read or for them to read to their children at home.

There are many ways of addressing the various Home Languages at our schools, just think a little out-of-the-box to meet the needs of all your learners, and address the languages they speak at home

Finding resources

Try some of these organizations and links to find books for your children.


Nal’ibali is an isiXhosa statement for “here’s the story”. Nal’ibali is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading. It’s built on the concept that a well-established culture of reading is a real game-changer for education in South Africa. Their resources are now data free, and they have stories on WhatsApp, and a range of other useful tools Explore https://www.nalibali.org/ for stories for younger learners and teenagers, clubs and training.


Lebohang Masango (https://lebohangmasango.com) has written a range of children’s books, which have been translated into a variety of South African languages, such as "Mpumi’s Magic Beads" which is available in English, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Setswana, Sesotho, Sepedi, Xistonga, Tshivenda, isiNdebele and siSwati. Explore https://lebohangmasango.com/buy-books/ to see the variety of books.


Praesa Children Stories (http://www.praesa.org.za/childrens-stories/ The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) is a non-governmental organisation focussed on multilingual early childhood language and literacy development. Our work in language and literacy approaches, curricula, training, materials development and research has meaning-making, stories and imagination as its compass point. PRAESA’s aim is to ensure that young children from all language, class and cultural backgrounds have appropriate opportunities to become imaginative and critical readers and writers. For information about the various books see http://www.praesa.org.za/contact/


The Puku Childrenʼs Literature Foundation is a reading promotion and book curation organisation that aims to ensure that all children have access to quality, culturally relevant literature in all South African languages. Explore the range of books at https://www.puku.co.za/books/


Let’s create opportunities where children will feel comfortable to speak their home language. Where they will feel proud of speaking their language. It can begin in every school.

Just think differently, watch the community involvement, excitement and the positive impact it would have as young children and teens are empowered. Have fun promoting “International Home Language Day” throughout the year, not only once a year.


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