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Home Languages in Early Childhood Development in South Africa

South Africa is a country with a rich linguistic diversity, having 12 official languages, including the latest addition, South African Sign Language. It's interesting to note that when we hear a 'South African' accent in an American movie, it's usually an Australian speaking. So what does a South African sound like? Recently, on International Mother Language Day (February 21st), we reflected on how this diversity presents Starfish Greathearts Foundation and South Africa with unique challenges and opportunities.

FNB School Shoe Campaign (2)

Home Language in the Classroom

At Starfish Greathearts Foundation, we have chosen an approach recognising South Africa's linguistic diversity. Research conducted by Cummins (2016) emphasizes the critical role of mother tongue education in facilitating cognitive development. Children who receive instruction in their native language demonstrate greater proficiency in complex cognitive tasks compared to those who are taught exclusively in a second language. This underscores the importance of preserving and promoting mother tongues in educational settings.

Furthermore, mother tongue education fosters a sense of cultural identity and belonging among children. According to studies by UNESCO (2020), children who are encouraged to learn in their native language exhibit higher levels of self-esteem and pride in their cultural heritage. By validating their linguistic and cultural identities, mother tongue education promotes inclusivity and diversity within educational environments.

Mother tongue education has been proven to have a positive impact on academic achievement. A recent study conducted by Baker et al. (2020) found that children who received instruction in their mother tongue during the early years of schooling performed better than their peers in literacy and numeracy assessments. This indicates that a strong foundation in the mother tongue not only aids in learning but also sets the stage for future academic success. Considering what we know about cognitive development in young children, which is that almost 80% of neuronal connections are formed in the first three years of life with over one million new connections being created every second, it is essential to maximize linguistic exposure and enrichment during this critical period (Center on the Developing Child, 2007).

Language Development

UNESCO (2024) summarised this in their reflections on International Mother Language Day as follows, "In upper-middle- and high-income countries, at the end of primary, children who speak the language they are taught in are 14% more likely to read with understanding than those who do not. In France, children who speak French at home are 28% more likely to be able to read with understanding at the end of primary than children who do not. This share rises to over 60% more likely in countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Slovakia, South Africa and Türkiye."
In South Africa, it is essential to have a variety of educational materials available throughout the country to promote the teaching of home languages and facilitate the best outcomes for numeracy and literacy. This ensures that students achieve the best possible outcomes in their schooling, and such materials should be introduced early on in a child's education.

The Situation on the Ground
A study conducted by Logan et al. (2019) revealed that reading to children regularly can significantly improve their vocabulary. In fact, children who are read to every day can learn up to 1.4 million new words by the time they start their reception year (kindergarten). However, in South Africa, 43% of households do not have access to books, according to van Staden and Roux ( 2021). This lack of access to reading material is severely limiting the reading development of young children in the country. Thrive by 5 (2022), the largest survey of early childhood development in South Africa, also found that 45.3% of 4 to 5-year-olds are lagging behind or significantly behind in their language and literacy skills. These statistics are concerning and highlight the urgent need to improve access to reading material and early childhood education in South Africa.
What Can We Do?
Biblionef SA Donations
At Starfish Greathearts Foundation we strive to ensure that the children we work with have access to the resources they need to develop emergent literacy and language skills in the languages of their communities. This includes special training and emphasis on reading in the classroom and at home.
2024 South African HellosWe also do not do this alone! We have partnered with Biblionef SA  and Book Dash to distribute mother-tongue books and literacy materials in our classrooms. Book Dash took this a step further and donated books to take home for every child in our ECD programs in their home languages. It is also through the generous financial donations of our partners and supporters that we can continue our work on the ground.  
To all of you out there, our team would like to offer some South African hellos!  Please download our free guide to official South African Hellos here


Biblionef    Mother and Son Reading    Book Dash

  1. Logan, J. A. R., Justice, L. M., Yumuş, M., Chaparro-Moreno L. J. (2019). When Children Are Not Read to at Home. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics
  2. Cummins, J. (2016). Mother Tongue Instruction and Educational Equity: Framing and Reframing the Issue. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 29(2), 109-124.
  3. UNESCO. (2020). Mother Tongue and Early Childhood Care and Education: Synergies and Challenges. UNESCO Bangkok.
  4. Baker, C., Wright, W. E., & Wigglesworth, G. (2020). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters.
  5. Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2017). Language Rights. In R. Bayley, R. Cameron, & C. Lucas (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 455-474). Oxford University Press.
  6. Giese S., Dawes A., Tredoux C., Mattes F., Bridgman G., van der Berg S., Schenk J., Kotzé J. (2022). Thrive by Five Index Report
  7. Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from
  8. Nelson, C. A. (2000). Neural plasticity and human development: the role of early experience in sculpting memory systems. Developmental Science.
  9. van Staden, S. and Roux, K. (2021). PIRLS 2021 Encyclopedia: Education Policy and Curriculum in Reading, South Africa. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.