Mother tongue teaching and learning to be introduced in Grade 4 in 2025



Published May 24, 2024


The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is set to introduce mother-tongue bilingual education from Grade 4 next year and education experts have described the policy shift as “transformational” and “progressive”.

The historic announcement was made by Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga when she addressed a workshop on the Implementation of Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual Education earlier this week.

South Africa’s official languages include Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Tsonga, Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, and Sign Language.

The minister said Mother Tongue-based Bilingual Education was piloted in the Eastern Cape for the past 10 years.

She said this will be implemented incrementally from January 2025 and is a critical change in the course of history for South African children.

“This means this cohort of learners will write their first Mathematics, Science, and Technology National Qualifications Framework Level 1 General Education Certificate in 2030. They will also write their National Senior Certificate in 2033.

These exams will be in their home languages, which are official languages of the Republic of South Africa,” she said.

Motshekga said pupils will never again have to learn the language of instruction first, then register the content in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, and only then strive to understand the content itself in languages that are not their mother tongue.

“Schools are currently providing data on e-forms to ensure a scientific response to the real language profile of each school in 2025,” she said.

The minister said assessment in the mother tongue-based bilingual approach will be a new feature for the Grade 4 pupils in mathematics, science, and technology starting in 2025.

“Learners will begin to enjoy the long-overdue right to learn and read meaningfully, like all leading nations of the world that do so in their home languages,” she said.

Deputy director-general for Transformation Projects at DBE, Naledi Mbude-Mehana, said currently all children start mother tongue education from Grade R to Grade 3 and in Grade 4 black African pupils change from their home language education to English.

Mbude-Mehana said only English and Afrikaans-speaking children continue with mother tongue education from ECD to university.

“This is where we see the Grade 4 slump and we lose a lot of children in Grade 4 because of this. This widens because the weak children become weaker until they get to Grade 12 and need extra classes.” She said the implementation of mother tongue in Grade 4 will equalise the learning field of pupils.

Mbude-Mehana further explained that the pilot has concluded in the Eastern Cape and a rapid assessment was conducted in 2022.

“In 2023, the results came out that the model used and adopted by the Eastern Cape for Mother-Tongue Based Bilingual Education beyond Grade 3 is a reliable prototype.”

She said mother tongue education will be rolled out in cohorts depending on the readiness of the sector and the schools.

“There are schools that have a perfect match between the language of the children and the teacher and there are schools that do not have a match yet and this is why we are doing a phased cohort depending on the readiness of provinces and schools,” said Mbude-Mehana.

Khumbulani Mngadi, director of the language directorate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, hailed the policy shift by the department, describing it as “transformative” and “progressive”.

Mngadi said it has been scientifically proven that learning in one’s mother tongue increases the chances of better performance.

He said in the South African historical context, the government is doing a good thing by introducing these languages on a systematic basis.

“What we are working on as linguists is intellectualising these African languages. That means we are capacitating them to deal with complex subjects like science and mathematics.

“There is a huge drive by Higher Education of developing technical terminology and UKZN is one of those institutions in the forefront,” said Mngadi, adding that if the government decided to introduce mother tongue teaching and learning in Grade 5, there has to be material written in indigenous languages which cannot be translated if there is no terminology in place.

Mngadi said it’s important that basic education works hand in hand with higher education in making sure that there is study material for these phases.

He assured parents that government is doing the right thing because the language that you get oriented in at an early stage is the one that helps you to navigate the complexities of the world better.

For example, Mngadi said, Germany, France and Portugal have invested in their own languages. “They think, create and innovate in their own languages.”

Mngadi said in South Africa, people were misled into thinking that their languages are inferior and many disregarded their languages as a result.

“Every language has the capacity to engage science, mathematics and technology but it has to be capacitated to do that.”

The Mercury