International mother language day 2024

kopoBy Kopo Ndhlovu 

Being spoken to in your mother tongue always evokes a sense of pride and reaffirms that your heritage and origin matter. Mother tongue starts at birth and continues throughout life, and it is therefore important for children to be educated and instructed in their mother tongue. Being taught in a language other than mother tongue, compromises a person’s ability to learn effectively.

Language resonates with countless South Africans as it has been the source of deep-rooted trauma for many who endured oppression during apartheid, when language was used as a tool for segregation and dominance. 

The celebration of International Mother Language Day is important as it reinforces the value of the country's 12 official languages and assists in the preservation of the many other indigenous languages that remain a vital part of South African culture and identity.

In South Africa, International Mother Language Day is celebrated on 21 February, and among its many aims it is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The constitution of South Africa has adopted a language policy that promotes multilingualism. This policy aims to encourage the development and use of all 12 official languages and facilitates the preservation of minority languages for cultural and heritage purposes.

This year’s International Mother Language Day was an opportunity to remind the international community that multilingual education enhances learning especially when the language of instruction is the learner’s first language. 

According to UNESCO the use of learners’ own languages for literacy and learning provides a solid pillar for education, and for transfer of skills and knowledge to additional languages. Learning in one’s first language allows understanding and interaction, which further develops critical thinking. 

UNESCO also points out that children who are exposed to their mother language gain strength, self-confidence and self-esteem, which stimulates their active participation in society. The late President Nelson Mandela also asserted that "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." It is this ‘talking to the heart’ that fuels activism or active participation in society.  

As part of the commemoration, UNESCO invited its Member States to celebrate the day in as many languages as possible as a reminder that linguistic diversity and multilingualism are essential for sustainable development.

In commemorating the importance of language in our lives and communities we can make language and cultural activities part of our daily lives.  It is especially important that we teach children the importance of mother tongue language and educate them about how language was used as a segregation tool during apartheid, so that it never repeats itself. 

Take time out of your daily schedule for a Sho’t Left to Freedom Park, in Pretoria or the Apartheid Museum, in Johannesburg: These show not only the history of the Apartheid era in South Africa in an engaging, interactive format but also has exhibitions and resources about the different languages spoken in South Africa.
As we celebrate 30 years of freedom, let us work together to advance the preservation and protection of all languages as they have an integral role in society and culture.

The connection between language and identity cannot be separated and it is central to who we are as people.  Thus we must all work to conserve our rich and diverse language heritage for generations to come. 

Kopo Ndhlovu is Deputy Director: Research at Government Communication and Information System