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The role of City’s public libraries in revitalizing mother tongue languages and promotion of multilingual education

By Johannes Masenya (Assistant Director, Johannesburg City Library) and Gabriel Mashabela ( Senior Librarian, Noordgesig Library)

On the 17th November 1999, UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day (IMLD) to honour diversity in languages and underscore the use of mother tongue languages within education and societies to foster social cohesion and social inclusion.  IMLD aspires to promote linguistic, and cultural diversity, and multilingualism. On this day in 1952, the Bengali Language Movement or Bangladeshis fought for recognition of the Bangla language. They demanded that this language should be used as an official language in government affairs, as a medium of instruction in schools and media. It has been observed across the globe since 2000. In South Africa, the Bengali incident parallels June 1976 when African students in Soweto protected against the apartheid government’s resolution to make Afrikaans a compulsory language of learning. The regime was forced to retreat it’s decision.

This year (February 2023) marks the 24th edition of IMLD, which is celebrated under the theme “multilingual education – a necessity to transform education’’. Through this theme UNESCO reiterates its commitment to linguistic diversity and multilingualism. The theme embraces, supports, and revitalizes local and mother languages in the education landscape. Consistent with the theme, Noordgesig Library hosted a spelling bee programme using the Actionbound application which is aligned to the fourth industrial revolution’s emerging technologies on 24 February 2023.

In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the period of 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages in response to preserving and promoting indigenous languages and multilingualism. In line with International Decade of Indigenous Languages, the city’s public libraries could explore the use of the 21st-century technologies to expand on the indigenous reading development programmes by integrating multilingual spelling bee competitions. For example, the spelling bee project would test learners’ multilingual performance in the languages spoken in the specific region (i.e., IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Setswana and Sepedi). Each learner would be tested on their ability to perform in all four languages, unlike learners tested on their abilities in separate languages, therefore being monolingual in essence.

The city’s public libraries provide information resources written in indigenous languages including the spelling bee activities using digital platforms to support lifelong learning, social cohesion, and reading development programmes. In the past, the majority of the community members in Johannesburg and other South Africans were being served with libraries that were based on Western models or European ideals and not “Africanised” models. In line with the ideals of the Western models, such as libraries built and stocked along racial, socioeconomic lines. It could be evidently concluded that library resources often lacked relevance and utility as they were not written in local languages understood by the African people in South Africa leading to the information famine. The influential factor to the information famine, despite, an abundance of human capital in South Africa is the paucity of information in indigenous languages.

According to Cobley (1997), in 1938, the European book stock was 185 084 and non-European book stock was zero (0). This could also imply that in the year 1938, there were no books for Black South Africans in their nine indigenous languages procured by the public libraries. Prohibitive legislation such as the Publications and Entertainment Act 26 of 1963 and Publication Act of 1974 dictated what should be on the library shelves. The Policy for the Selection of Materials for the Public Libraries of the City of Johannesburg aims to correct the imbalances and provision of historical information and materials and to promote an appreciation of the cultures, languages, and heritage of all the people of the City.


The 2030 Reading Panel report estimates that 82% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning, while children leave grade one without knowing the alphabet. The reading plan entrenching and promoting the nine previously marginalised languages (e.g. IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, Sepedi, Xitsonga, and Siswati) by the public libraries as part of the reading-for-meaning program has the potential to ensure that all children in South Africa aged ten or older can read for meaning by 2030. Research worldwide shows that learners learn best through their home languages.

Public libraries and librarians could also play a significant role in revitalizing languages that are threatened with extinction by conducting story time sessions in mother tongue languages, and encouraging parents and caregivers within Early Childhood Development centres to use books written in indigenous languages. City’s LIS directorate distributes hundreds of books including in mother tongue languages to the ECD centres located in disadvantaged communities on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Public libraries support “Outcome 1: Improved Quality of Basic Education” by increasing access to information resources written in or translated into indigenous languages. This year’s theme lends legitimacy to the notion that mother language is crucial in learning and improves learning outcomes as well as academic performance. Against this backdrop, Johannesburg City Library has in its collection Shakespeare translations which include among others Hamlet (UHamlet, inKosana yase Denmark), Julius Caesar (UJulius Caesar) and Macbeth (UMacbeth) by K.E Masinga which offers the option to learners struggling with Shakespearean English to use plays written in their mother tongue languages. Access to education through mother tongue enhance access to education to the masses of ordinary citizens including individuals from disadvantaged communities. Research reveals that multilingual education is the cornerstone for inclusion in learning.

In conclusion, librarians should be guided by the core principles of community involvement, inclusivity, accessibility, social transformation, multilingualism, and fourth industrial revolution (4thIR) skills for capturing, organising, disseminating, and preserving IK for the future generations

By Johannes Masenya and Gabriel Mashabela

17 February 2023

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