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On Tuesday, Nelson Mandela University joined educational and other organisations across the world to celebrate International Mother Language Day.

This is observed internationally every year on this day to acknowledge and celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as promote the value of mother tongue education.

The day was first announced by Unesco in 1999 to mark the day when, in 1952, several protesting students were killed at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) following the declaration of Urdu as the only national language in the country, and the subsequent marginalisation of the majority national language, Bengali.

The students were protesting for the right to speak and use their mother tongue in the learning process.

International Mother Language Day is significant for SA because of our diverse linguistic and cultural heritage.

Furthermore, during centuries of colonial and apartheid eras, Dutch, English and Afrikaans were elevated above local indigenous languages.

The use of these languages was restricted to the domestic sphere and lower levels of education and this contributed to their de-intellectualisation.

Therefore, in SA, similarly to Bangladesh, language issues are a fundamental aspect of social justice.

First, language is linked to identity, cultural heritage as well as economic and political participation and these are all aspects of language rights.

Second, in SA and specifically at Nelson Mandela University, social justice also relates to issues of access and success in education.

The International Mother Language Day highlights the link between language and access and success in education.

There are many studies that illustrate disregard of students’ linguistic experiences in learning can have negative effects on their learning outcomes.

The issue of access to education is also closely linked to inclusion and optimal participation.

In the education context, when students are able to communicate in their mother tongue they are more likely to feel included in different communication acts of the university, and are also likely to participate fully in social, cultural and other aspects of university life.

This can also be extended to other contexts outside university.

In line with efforts to advance indigenous languages, Mandela University’s faculty of humanities has collaborated with the Eastern Cape Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) to draw a spotlight to this day.

Our aim is to bring attention to the value of linguistic diversity and the importance of preserving and promoting the mother tongue and indigenous languages.

We wish to raise awareness of the many benefits of speaking and learning multiple languages, including cognitive and cultural benefits.

Earlier this month, the faculty of humanities and PanSALB marked their commitment to International Mother Language Day by engaging with staff and students on multilingualism, and giving away dictionaries and other resources in isiXhosa, Sesotho and Nama languages.

Dr Xolisa Tshongolo, the Eastern Cape PanSALB senior provincial manager leading the campaign, said for this year “PanSALB’s annual observance of the International Mother Language Day the entire month of February, the Language Activism Month, is dedicated to the promotion of mother language”.

We strongly support the teaching and use of isiXhosa and Afrikaans in different academic interactions, and are leaders in producing postgraduate research written in these languages.

We will also be offering a short-learning programme (SLP) in South African sign language.

This year also marks 200 years of the historic moment of the conversion of isiXhosa from an oral to a printed language.

The year 1823 marks the publication of the first isiXhosa printed words, followed by literacy in isiXhosa, which was accelerated by African intellectuals who were early literates. The humanities faculty’s strategic research theme on African vernacular archive and heritage studies seeks to document and preserve these works.

This is important in the transformation of the curriculum at our university, especially the diversification of the academic canon through inclusion of the works of early African thinkers.

We research the literary archive, especially writings from early African thinkers, such as Tiyo Soga, SEK Mqhayi, John Solilo, Nontsizi Mgqetho, Charlotte Maxeke and William Wauchope.

We had, for the first time in the history of Mandela University, a highly scientific seminar presented in isiXhosa with simultaneous translation offered.

In our institutional quest for social justice, we will continue our efforts to advance the mother tongue.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 24 February 2023 written by Prof Pamela Maseko, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Nelson Mandela University


Contact information
Prof Pamela Maseko
Executive Dean: Faculty of Humanities