International Mother Tongue Language Day and the University of Pretoria

2016-02-21
Dr Pieter Mulder

While the world continues to become more sensitive to the importance of a person's mother language, South Africa and the EFF Youth move in the opposite direction. The demand that only English must be used at the University of Pretoria and other universities confirms this and is a move backwards against the modern global trend.

 

Today (Sunday, February 21) is International Mother Language Day. UNESCO established the day in order to make education accessible for more people through education in their own language.

 

The demand by certain students at Tuks that all must be taught in English makes no provision for fair tuition for non-English students. While the majority of white and coloured pupils, for example in the Western Cape, write matric exams in Afrikaans, they are now forced to pursue their studies in English. The University of Cape Town even has a language clause that requires a certain standard of English to qualify for admission.

 

With 25 universities and more than 36 campuses in South Africa, it should be easy to comply with UNESCO's goal of teaching in more languages than only English. Furthermore, the country’s Constitution recognizes eleven official languages (section 6) while section 29 provides for education in different languages.

 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the student protest is not really about transformation and Afrikaans, but about an intolerant nation building model with no room for a multi-language system.

 

On 17 November 1999, UNESCO announced that February 21 would henceforth be recognized as International Mother Language Day.

 

February 21 was chosen because in 1952 several students of the University of Dhaka were shot by police when they protested for the recognition of Bengali as an official language in East Pakistan. Today, the region is called Bangladesh and has Bengali as one of its official languages. There is also an impressive language monument in Dhaka built to commemorate the tragic event.

 

According to the United Nations (UN) the purpose of this day is to promote and recognise the linguistic and cultural diversity in the world.

 

The UN decided to emphasise this diversity even further by celebrating 2008 as International Language Year.

 

Against the backdrop of the events at the University of Pretoria, it is ironic that the UNESCO theme for 2016 is mother language and the importance of mother tongue education. In this way the UN wants to make education more accessible to minority language groups, indigenous languages and for women and girls of the world.