The importance of African languages


For many decades Africa has been the only place in the world where most children are taught in the language that is not their own.  This places African languages at the centre of discussion where education is concerned.

The discourse starts from whether they have enough terminology and vocabulary to be languages of teaching and learning; of the economy and wealth; law and health; and leads back to whether they can make enough ‘academic sense’ for intellectualisation.  However, research shows that these languages are frequently used by teachers to interpret knowledge from an English curriculum to African language learners.

Sadly, this practice is likely to be growing the language barrier between these learners’ material printed in English such as textbooks, assessment questions, and briefs.

Languages form a pivotal role in our lives as they are inclusive of our different cultures and identities. An African language is not just a series of words but, includes certain African nuances which emerge in the form of idioms, metaphors and euphemism as well as praises.  Language is therefore tied intrinsically to a sense of belonging, which is in turn linked to society and its values.

Teaching in African languages is critical as it can help learners to grasp concepts more easily, pass well, and support their success later in life. Although this is a great advantage; the challenge is the implication as far as resources are concerned. Improving the existing materials usually means translating from English to an African language, not necessarily developing original African language materials. Direct translation opens itself up to much criticism, potential for error, and dysfunctionality in the process.

Every human being under the sun defines themselves by the language they speak and the people that use the same language. Their values, ways of socialisation and dignity are exhibited in that language as it becomes the epitome of those languages. The heritage of the group of people is also displayed through a language.

I am of the view that African languages embody within them a wealth of knowledge that is not articulated well by African Language users and sometimes suffer mis- appropriation and representation by those foreign to them.  This suggests that if we are committed to decolonising our education system, African languages users need to play a leading role in designing a curriculum that is inclusive of their languages and that this becomes something more than just a promising ideology.

This debate has been characterised by two views. The first endorses African languages as a language of teaching and learning, because they have enough vocabulary and terminology. The second speaks against this idea, because it maintains that African languages do not have capacity to be used as languages of teaching and learning. This view has been backed up by sentiments claiming that intellectualisation of African languages will be expensive and/or a waste of time for African language speakers themselves who appear less keen to use the languages because of the lack of economic value.

I am of the view that African languages embody within them a wealth of knowledge that is not articulated well by African Language users and sometimes suffer misappropriation from conclusion deduced by those foreign to the languages and their (African Languages) representation.  This suggests if we are committed to decolonising our education system, African Languages users need to play a leading role in education design that is inclusive their languages in that they would have an insightful perspective which is more than a promising “ideology”.

Access to print material in African languages is equally important in preserving and promoting mother languages. One of the literacy organisations in South Africa that is promoting the importance of mother language is Nal’ibali – this national reading-for-enjoyment campaign advocates for reading and hearing stories in the language we speak and understand. Each week, 53 000 literacy supplements are distributed free of charge directly to reading clubs, community organisations, libraries, schools and other partners in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo, North West and KwaZulu-Natal.

Somikazi Deyi is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, School of Languages and Literatures, Department of African Languages