ON 21 February every year, people of the world celebrate mother tongue – the first language a child learns to speak and write before they can learn to speak and write other languages.

The theme for this year is: “Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation.”

Masennya Dikotla, CEO of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, said mother tongue education is important to all children.

Mzansi children need to be taught in their mother tongue for the first three years of school – grades 1 to 3 – but the mother tongue needs to be reinforced and developed for at least six years, or more.”

English is a critical language in Mzansi so it needs to be taught from grade 4.

Masennya said it takes about six to eight years to learn a second language well enough for it to be used as a medium of instruction.

“It is so much harder for children who are forced to learn subjects in a language they barely know.”

According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, eight out of 10 grade 4 pupils cannot understand what they read. The study also revealed that Mzansi was placed last out of 50 countries.

Masennya said the children who keep learning in their mother tongue retain the mother tongue as a primary medium of instruction – with English being taught as a subject for at least six years – can succeed under well-resourced conditions.

Research also shows that the longer the child can learn reading and writing in their mother tongue, while learning a second language, the better the chances of them succeeding.

Young children learn languages much easier and faster and it also boosts their capacity to learn, but parents need to know that children learn reading, writing and academic content best when they learn in a language they understand.