New language changes planned for South African schools

The Department of Basic Education, working alongside Unicef, has developed a new multi-language concept paper to encourage the use of mother-tongue languages at the country’s schools.

Answering in a recent parliamentary Q&A, minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said that her department now intends to introduce African languages as mother tongue incrementally beyond the foundation phase (Grade R – Grade 3).

Motshekga said that this change follows a successful ‘Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education pilot’ run by the Eastern Cape Department of Education.

As part of the pilot, 2,015 schools are using IsiXhosa and Sesotho as the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) beyond the foundation phase.

Motshekga said that learners in these schools are taught Mathematics, Natural Science and Technology in their home languages IsiXhosa and Sesotho.

“This initiative was started in 72 Cofimvaba (Eastern Cape) schools in Grade 4 in 2012 and incrementally in subsequent grades – the cohort is in Grade 12 in 2020.

“The province is working with other stakeholders such as the Rhodes University, University of Fort Hare, Oxford University Press, Pearson, and PanSALB.”

Motshekga added that learners in the pilot outperformed those not in the cohort in the June examinations on 17 out of 18 questions.

“The National Curriculum Statement encourages learners to learn through their home language, particularly in lower grades where learners learn the critical foundational skills of reading, writing and numeracy.

“English and Afrikaans are used as LoLT throughout the system, although just 23% of South Africans identify English and Afrikaans as their Home Languages. African Home Languages are used as LoLT mainly in the foundation phase, and thereafter transit to English.”

Single-medium schools 

Motshekga said that there are 8,096 single-medium schools in South Africa.  The majority of schools are English (6,483) followed by Afrikaans (1,261) and IsiXhosa (163).

The table below details all of the single-medium schools in South Africa:

Languages Number of single-medium schools
English 6 483
Afrikaans 1 261
IsiXhosa 163
IsiNdebele 85
IsiZulu 31
Sepedi 22
SeSotho 17
Other 7
SiSwati 7
Setswane 7
South African Sign Language 6
Tshivenda 4
Xitsonga 3
Total 8 096

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New language changes planned for South African schools