Simikazi Deyi expresses the importance of mother tongue languages in an article in 2018 that states, “Language is not just a series of words, but includes certain nuances that emerge in the form of idioms, metaphors and euphemisms, as well as praises. Language is therefore tied intrinsically to a sense of belonging, which is in turn linked to society and its values”. In a country where our differences have so often divided us, our school is always looking for tangible opportunities to acknowledge the spectrum of who we are.
Language has historically been a divisive tool in education. Used to disempower, to segregate, and to alienate children from access to quality education. One simply needs to reflect on the 1976 Soweto Uprising to realise how powerful a tool language is in creating equitable access to education. In modern day South Africa, we still struggle with classism and bias based on people’s accents when they speak in English. As schools serving children on the African continent, it is our responsibility to work to create a cohesive society, and the acknowledgement of our language diversity is one of many ways we can make this possible for our learners.
A starting point for us was to embrace the different languages spoken by our students. In social and break settings, we do not prohibit students from speaking in their mother tongue. Rather, we seek to empower our students to understand how to include their peers, and not allow children of differing languages to feel excluded from a social group. We also encourage our students to learn language through socialising with their peers, who may speak a different language. This is a more complicated approach than simply saying everyone must speak English, however, the long term impact on social cohesion is more meaningful.
With all this in mind, our team launched our first Love Your Mother Tongue Week (LYMT Week) in 2019. LYMT Week is a week where parents can book a slot to come in to visit their child’s class during the Morning Meeting, which is the first half hour of the day. During this time parents are invited to read a story, teach the children a song, or recite a poem in their mother tongue. During COVID parents have been able to join via Zoom. Since starting LYMT Week, we have been treated to the most rewarding recognition of who we are as a nation. Our children have experienced parents celebrating the various indigenous South African languages, Asianlanguages, English, Afrikaans, languages from the Middle East, as well languages from throughout Africa by introducing them to the rich nuances of their languages through music, poetry and storytelling.
We host this each term in an effort to normalise the differences that make us who we are, and being mindful to not just doing this once a year on a national holiday. Operationally, this is a very simple event, which requires no changes to our timetable, and is facilitated with a simple booking form. While it is very little work to organise, the power and impact of it is huge. It is however, important that the true shift does not just come from a termly event, but rather from interrogating our policies about language, and language diversity, both formal and informal. We should continue to strive to create cohesion through our everyday actions and daily acknowledgement of our differences, or else events like this will remain hollow and will be unable to affect the change we need to see in our society.