Books transport us into alternate worlds and give us different perspectives. They allow us to live vicariously through the characters. Some books make us feel understood because the characters’ lives resonate with our lived experiences. Most avid readers have favourite books or authors. But, how many of us can say that, that piece of literature that we love so much and gravitate towards whenever we want to feel happy, inspired or knowledgeable is written in our home language? How many of us can say that we related more with our favourite books because they were written in the language we spoke first?
In isiZulu, which is my mother tongue, one’s home language is referred to as “the tongue you suckled off the breast”. A child’s mother language is their first way of communicating since it is the first language they understand and ultimately, use. It only makes sense that it should be the first language they actively learn to read. Reading in their home language helps children familiarise themselves with reading and develop their comprehension along with other language skills. When we read in English, we often use our knowledge of our home language to grasp what we are reading and it is the same for children.
Many African households do not use English as a home language, but parents insist that their children read in English to get an advantage over their peers. According to Angelina Kioko, an English and Linguistics professor at the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, it is beneficial for children to read literature in their home language from an early age. Her research findings show that learners who enter school knowing only their mother tongue have a better understanding of the content and ultimately a more positive attitude towards school.
Most schools do not teach children in their home language and this leads to children who do not know how to read or write in their mother language. So, the onus lies on the parents to teach their children to read their home language. It is important for parents to do this as it lays a firm groundwork to make learning easier for their children. It not only establishes a foundation for children to learn to read and write but most importantly, it gives children the ability to enjoy stories in their home language.
The truth is that very few books are published and distributed in African languages. Just as in many African countries, in South Africa children whose home language is not English are unable to read literature in their mother tongue. Accessing children’s books in African languages is challenging and this discourages parents from getting their children books in their home languages. However, there are websites like Nal’ibali where children can read and write stories in the language they prefer. Nal’ibali offers multilingual stories where children can read the same story in more than one language. Another website aimed at encouraging children to read in their mother language is Book Dash, this organisation gathers writers, illustrators, editors and book designers who volunteer to create African storybooks that everyone can translate and even distribute. The books on these websites are free and readily available to the public. Parents can use these websites to arm their children with the necessary tools to become proficient in their home language.
The ability to read and write one’s mother tongue should not be considered a nice to have but rather a vital part of expanding a child’s literacy. The future of the world is in the hands of the children and if they can learn that their home languages are just as important as English or their at-school medium of instruction, they will be inclined to love reading and writing in their home language and ultimately write more African stories that will be published for future generations ensuring the growth of African languages. Parents must raise readers who love “the tongue they suckled off the breast” so that they may write stories that not only resonate with them but also relate to the hearts of children like them.